Matt Purke felt relief the minute he became a member of the Washington Nationals.
Finally he would begin throwing to batters again. Finally he’d be in live games again. Finally, after three months spent doing nothing but staring at a catcher’s target, building up his arm strength with a throwing program, he could put a spring battle with bursitis behind him and return to playing baseball.
So it was with a little bit of irony that Purke sat in a dugout in Arizona last month the day before he’d make his first professional start — more than 63 days after he signed on the dotted line — and talked about the challenges he’d faced since that August day when he forewent more schooling and opted to become a National.
His strength wasn’t fully back. His sharpness wasn’t nearly where he wanted it to be. The inactivity — watching as the Nationals’ New York- Penn League affiliate Auburn Doubledays made a push for the playoffs, throwing four times in Instructional League games — drove him crazy, even though he understood the reasoning behind it.
“I could tell that I hadn’t pitched to a batter in like five or six months,” Purke said. “It just wasn’t as sharp as where I was before. Throwing and all of that is one thing but continuing to pitch to batters is another.”
Purke is possibly the gem of the Nationals’ 2011 draft, a 2009 first-round pick of the Texas Rangers whose deal fell through on a veto by Major League Baseball because of the team’s financial troubles at the time. When he’s at his best, he’s a power lefty who has a devastating curveball and an already-developed slider/cutter/changeup mix. That pitcher is a steal in the third round of the draft — even with his major league deal and signing bonus that total nearly $4 million.
“He’s a really special young man,” said Nationals director of player development Doug Harris. “Really mature, very focused but with a calmness about him. He’s very humble. He’s impressive. Very impressive.”
He’s also intellectual by nature — cerebral, as one Nationals executive put it — so it was difficult to digest that precision was not a part of his game as he began his long-awaited professional career.
“I’m a really hard critic on myself,” he said. “More than anyone else. When someone tells me, ‘Well, you did OK, you’re just working’ — me, I want to make sure that it’s good every time I go out there.”
It was with that in mind that Purke came out for his first start in the Arizona Fall League and was, quite simply, awful. Purke faced eight batters and retired one. He couldn’t escape the first inning, the lone out coming on a rocket down the right-field line that Philadelphia Phillies prospect Tyson Gillies chased down. Purke fell behind almost every hitter and threw just 22 pitches: 12 strikes, 10 balls. Any hopes he had of showing off the skills that at one time catapulted him to the top of draft boards were resoundingly dashed.
What came out was a lefty with little control whose fastball reached just 92 mph — not the pitcher the Nationals were hoping could complement a rotation headed by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.
But there was caution breathed with each sigh scouts and evaluators let out as they watched Purke’s much-anticipated, albeit abbreviated, performance.
“The numbers are going to be inflated,” said Single-A Potomac pitching coach Paul Menhart, who served in the same capacity for the Scottsdale Scorpions. “They’re going to be inflated out here because it’s an offensive league and I’ll leave it at that. Traditionally, any pitcher who has success out here is usually not normal.”
What then, to make of Purke — who showed marked improvement with each AFL appearance and will find himself in big-league camp this spring whether he’s ready? His fastball velocity rose to 96 mph, and that sharpness he’d been searching for began to return to all of his pitches as he worked through a few mechanical tweaks. He finished the AFL season with four scoreless innings, during which he struck out four, allowed two hits and walked one.
The only pitcher in team history beside Strasburg to earn a spot on the 40-man roster before throwing a professional pitch knows he’s not Strasburg. He also knows he’s healthy and has joined the likes of Bryce Harper knowing he’s in contention for the Nationals’ 25-man roster.
“There’s no rule saying that I can’t make the team,” Purke said. “I’m going to try to put my best foot forward. I know that, realistically, the chances are not in my favor, but you never know what can happen.”