JUPITER, Fla. — Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty will tell you that he's nervous when any of his pitchers are on the mound. The thin line that separates a healthy pitcher from one with a serious injury is the tightrope they walk night in and night out.
When Stephen Strasburg's on the mound that tension probably goes up a notch. As McCatty noted late last season, when Strasburg was completing his comeback from Tommy John surgery, he's already lived his nightmare with him once. He's lived it with Jordan Zimmermann, too — watching them, helpless, as their right ulnar collateral ligament gave out.
That fear my never completely go away, not for McCatty, anyway, or anyone else who's invested in what the Nationals have — perhaps in hope alone — in Strasburg and the rest of their starting rotation.
Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and one of Chien-Ming Wang or John Lannan round out a starting staff that their manager said Friday he would put up against any other in the league.
"I'll take my five guys or six guys over any staff in the league," manager Davey Johnson said hours before Strasburg's second start of the spring, a 3-0 loss to the Miami Marlins.
Even over the Philadelphia Phillies, who boast Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top?
"Their top three vs. our top three, stuff-wise, we match up as good," Johnson said, taking his trio of Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann over that of the Phillies'.
"The number of All-Star games and postseason [games], we don't stack up that good," he added. "But they're capable of getting us there — if they just do the things they're capable of doing."
Potential is the word that has been thrown around Nationals camp this spring seemingly at will. The word is uttered countless times throughout the day. "Potentially," the Nationals will compete in a division loaded with heavy hitters. And while he's already shown so much in his brief major league career, there may be no one with more potential than Strasburg as he continues his path back to full health.
With that in mind, he was pleased after his three-inning performance, despite a lengthy third inning that featured three hits, two runs and a hit batter.
"It felt good," Strasburg said. "I commanded pitches a lot better [than my first outing on Sunday]. ... They really didn't hit much."
Strasburg made quick work of the top of the Marlins' order Friday night, needing just 10 pitches to mow through Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and Hanley Ramirez. While the radar gun at Roger Dean Stadium appeared a bit hot — marking his first two pitches to Giancarlo Stanton to open the second inning at 101 and 103 mph — scouts in the stands had him in the 94-97 mph range and his curveball was working just fine.
After he showed Stanton that heat, he dropped in a 76-mph curve and sent the Marlins' strapping slugger away shaking his head. McCatty had been urging Strasburg not to throw a too many breaking balls, to focus on his fastball command early in the spring, but the curve to Stanton was nothing surprising.
"It was good," McCatty said. "I didn't think a whole lot of it because he has that capability. It was a great pitch, what are you going to do? Every time he threw one like that if I was going to go, 'Wow,' I'd end up going 'Wow' a lot."
Strasburg ran into some trouble in the third, though, needing 23 pitches in an inning that started with the right-hander bobbling a grounder back to the mound and throwing awry as Marlins left fielder Bryan Petersen ran down the line."Just got to do some [pitchers fielding practice] tomorrow," he quipped later.
Of the three hits he allowed in the inning, one included a well-struck triple by Reyes to left center that landed just out of reach of center fielder Rick Ankiel. It was initially ruled an error but later reversed, charging the run that came on the play and the one after it to Strasburg's spring ERA.
He threw an additional 14 pitches in the bullpen to round out his night at 60 and turned the page to his next start, which will likely be Wednesday in Orlando, Fla., against the Braves, and the 70-75 pitch limit he'll be on then.
"It's just repetition," Strasburg said. "That's the bottom line. You can go out there and it's spring. Like tonight. I pitched well, I thought. I didn't give up many hard-hit balls at all. I made a couple mistakes fielding the ball, that's it. Everybody is out there knowing that it's spring and getting back into the flow, getting used to the speed of the game again. It's nothing to be too upset about.
"Bottom line is I got my work in. It felt good. Stuff was there. It's all about moving on and getting ready for the next one."
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