- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2012

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Sun baked Osceola County Stadium on Saturday, from Cub Scouts in orange bandannas to middle-aged men clutching binders of baseball cards and jostling for autographs along the first-base line to fans in Houston Astros jerseys belting out “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

As the afternoon sweltered away, the Astros edged the Nationals 3-1 in the Grapefruit League opener. And Nationals manager Davey Johnson pointed to the date on the calendar.

“It’s so dang early,” Johnson said.

Sure, right-hander starter Edwin Jackson threw more balls then strikes. But the seeming struggles of the Nationals’ one-year, $10 million free-agent acquisition are part of the deception spring can bring.

Under the Grapefruit League’s bright sun, process matters more than results for veterans like the 28-year-old Jackson.

“You’ve got a little more leeway to go out and work on some things without worry about what happens,” Jackson said. “It’s definitely different when you have a [rotation] spot ready, but you’re not out there being complacent.”

Bouts of wildness, like seven walks in Game 4 of the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals last October, dogged Jackson’s young career. The Nationals are his seventh team, with his mid-90s fastball and sharp slider never quite delivering the results they seemed to promise.

His walks declined to a career-low 62 last season, but still Jackson remains a work in progress.

Sixteen of his 28 pitches on Saturday against the Astros’ rag-tag lineup were balls. He threw first-pitch balls to five of the seven hitters he faced. A pair of double plays allowed Jackson to escape without allowing a run in two innings.

Jackson admitted to extra adrenaline on the mound and a fastball he didn’t locate as consistently as he would like. This was different than throwing batting practice or a bullpen session. Pitching coach Steve McCatty thought Jackson’s early pitches looked rushed and a bit off.

“He had a little too much going on in the first,” said catcher Jesus Flores, who contributed two doubles.

Jackson arrived at camp tinkering with his mechanics. Timing, from getting his hand out of his glove to when his arm comes around, is a focus.

Johnson is loathe to suggest mechanical tweaks of his own this early in the season. The manager wants to listen to Jackson, to make him comfortable with his new club, to understand what he’s thinking about.

“I don’t think we’re trying to change anything,” Johnson said.

McCatty’s goal is straightforward: He doesn’t want Jackson to worry about tipping pitches or mechanical adjustments or other “garbage” on the mound. He wants Jackson to be smooth and athletic. That begins, McCatty believes, with the mental approach. And athletic isn’t hyperbole, since Jackson started his minor league career as a center fielder.

“I want him to feel like everything’s working together,” McCatty said.

Originally scheduled to throw 40 to 45 pitches against the Astros, Jackson finished his afternoon with 15 pitches in the bullpen. He worked on timing. His breaking balls improved. He spotted the ball well. The next step is transferring the improvement to a game.

“It’s just the first start,” Jackson said, smiling. “They’re not trying to kill us right now.”

NOTES: Outfielder Bryce Harper went 1-for-3. That included a big swing-and-miss against a Wiffleball-like curve from Astros starter Livan Hernandez on the first pitch Harper saw in the second. … Outfielder Jayson Werth didn’t travel Saturday, but will start in center field Sunday against the Astros in Viera. … Left-hander Ross Detwiler made a mistake with a 1-0 changeup down the middle that turned into a two-run home run to center field. But he struck out three batters over two innings, as he worked on his curve and fought location he felt was “a little off.”

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