- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — A few weeks ago, Michael Morse and Ryan Mattheus were matched up in one of the spring’s final live batting practice sessions.

As coaches, teammates and Nationals officials gathered around to watch, Mattheus delivered a pitch so impressive that not only did it knock Morse back a few steps but an audible gasp went up from around the cage.

“Did he hit him with the pitch?” one reporter standing nearby asked.

“No,” an official responded with a chuckle. “No, that was just a really good slider.”

And in four words, the official gave credence to the improvements Mattheus had been working on all offseason. A really good slider. Finally.

Mattheus, a former starter, always has had the slider. But last year, his first full season after Tommy John surgery and first in the major leagues, often his arm was too tired to get the proper bite on it. It wound up “a little rounded, or flat,” as Nationals manager Davey Johnson described it.

Turning it into an out pitch was Mattheus‘ No. 1 offseason goal.

This spring, he got a chance to pick the brain of the man with one of the best sliders in the business, Brad Lidge — whose addition likely squeezed Mattheus out of a locked-in bullpen spot. The two played catch together early this spring, as Mattheus bounced questions about the pitch off Lidge — who threw a slider a staggering 70.7 percent of the time in 2011 according to Fangraphs.com.

They talked more about mindset than mechanics, about the fearlessness it takes to throw the first one for a strike and continue moving further down in the zone.

“I think what I’m really trying to tell him is when’s a good time to throw it,” Lidge said. “I know he’s got a good arm, I can see it. And he’s got a hard slider. But the difference between trying to throw a slider too hard — which ends up being more like a cutter — and taking a little off from time to time if you need to is something you learn with experience. He’s asking the right questions about that pitch and how to make it a strikeout pitch.”

Mattheus watched Jan. 26, as the reports came in that the Nationals had signed Lidge and realized that, just like the rest of his path to the big leagues had been, making the Nationals out of camp wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. He’d done everything the Nationals could have hoped for after his June 10 call-up last year, recording a 2.81 ERA and allowing just eight of 29 inherited runners to score.

“I love Ryan Mattheus,” Johnson said Monday. “What’s not to like about him? He’s still on my radar.”

But despite his performance in 2011 and despite how strong he’s looked this spring, Mattheus finds himself on the bubble, his minor league option seemingly looming around every corner.

It’s part of the reason why Mattheus, who normally arrives at spring training about three weeks before the report date, stayed at home in California longer this offseason. He strengthened his shoulder and changed his diet in an effort to get leaner and more flexible, but he worked to pace himself. He came into camp feeling stronger and more prepared for the rigors of a long big-league season — even as the Nationals’ bullpen continued to crowd and, seemingly, leave no room for him in it.

“I’ve had to compete for a job every year before this,” Mattheus said with a shrug when asked about the acquisition. “They don’t just hand these out.”

In Mattheus, the Nationals have someone with three pitches who many feel could be a closer. “He’s got closer stuff, no doubt,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said.

Unless a trade or a cut clears up space in their projected bullpen he may be taking that stuff to Triple-A Syracuse to open the year — the cruel reality of what Johnson continues to call “the tough part of spring.”

“He already proved that he belonged,” said left-hander Ross Detwiler, Mattheus‘ roommate and a player familiar with Mattheus‘ situation. “Everybody knows that. It’s just a numbers game.”

The challenge has only made Mattheus more at peace with himself and his path to this point.

“I’d love to be Stephen Strasburg or Drew Storen, in their situation, where you get to the big leagues and lock down a job really early,” Mattheus said. “Those were the ideas I had when I first signed. … But it doesn’t always happen that way.

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