- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — The number 47 dangled from Matt Purke’s silver necklace.

Purke wore the number at Texas Christian before the Washington Nationals nabbed the left-hander in the third round of last June’s draft and handed him a four-year, $4.15 million major league contract.

But fellow left-hander Gio Gonzalez owns No. 47 for the Nationals. So, Purke donned his No. 50 jersey and the No. 47 necklace Friday afternoon at Space Coast Stadium. And the 21-year-old pitched three sharp innings in a 3-0 exhibition win against Georgetown, his longest professional outing.

The last time Purke saw extended mound time was his final start for Texas Christian, a five-inning outing against Dallas Baptist on June 4. He appeared seven times in the Arizona Fall League, never longer than two innings.

“The nerves were just because I hadn’t pitched in a game in months,” Purke said, after holding the Hoyas to one hit and striking out three.

A few hundred fans soaked up the 80-degree afternoon in the stands. The smell of sunscreen drifted with the breeze.

“Day-o,” the speakers bellowed.

No one answered.

But baseball was back. And so was Purke.

Purke’s motion was free and easy. He worked quickly. Catcher Sandy Leon, who caught Purke on Friday and in the instructional league, estimated his fastball ranged from 90 to 92 miles per hour.

A silver-haired man sitting below the press box punctuated the quiet afternoon shouting random bits of trivia and minutiae unrelated to the on-field happenings, as Purke knifed through the Hoyas’ lineup.

The man hollered “Roberto Clemente” and “meet the Mets” and “mellow yellow” and “Tokyo Giants.” When “Bad to the Bone” played between innings, he tried to sing along. He couldn’t match the tune or lyrics.

Purke wasn’t off-key, needing 32 pitches, 24 for strikes. Pitching against a Georgetown squad unaccustomed to wood bats and without senior Rand Ravnaas, their injured leading hitter, didn’t hurt. And the Hoyas weren’t patient: six of the nine batters who faced Purke saw three pitches or less.

“I think that’s what Georgetown was expecting, someone to come after them,” third basemen Anthony Rendon said. “It’s our first official game and we’re not here to throw curveballs in the dirt. We’re just trying to get good work in.”

Manager Davey Johnson, admittedly “frisky” earlier in the day with the thought of baseball’s return, noticed Purke’s command of three pitches. Johnson described Purke as “good” or “great” four times in two sentences.

Originally, Purke was scheduled for two innings. But he was sent out for a third because of the low pitch count.

“I was able to mix all my pitches in and really work both sides of the plate. They were hacking pretty early and I kind of made a little bit of adjustment and started coming in on them,” Purke said. “It kind of changed their mindset. … I was able to work ahead, get quick outs.”

That was an improvement from Purke’s Arizona Fall League sojourn. Over 7.1 innings with the Scottsdale Scorpions, he allowed 12 hits and 11 runs.

Against Georgetown, Purke relied on his four-seam fastball. He threw a handful of sinkers, too, and liked their movement. The ball felt good coming out of his hand. And Andres Blanco helped out with a pair of acrobatic plays at shortstop.

So, Purke stood in the near-empty clubhouse wearing the No. 47 necklace. The No. 50 jersey hung in his locker.

“It was a good day,” he said.

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