WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A jovial guy looking strikingly like Stephen Strasburg was at Strasburg’s locker Sunday afternoon. Beard a bit long, hair on top a bit shorter.
Turns out, it was actually Strasburg, who is including a touch of humor and more frequent smiles in recent post-pitching conversations with reporters. It may not last. But, for now, there is a veteran pitcher pleased with progress in place of an often dour competitor who grapples with his perfectionist self.
Strasburg threw 84 pitches against a recognizable New York Mets lineup Sunday. This was not an afternoon spent against late spring canned ham delivered via a split-squad game. Instead, the Mets rolled out several of the hitters Strasburg will see March 30 when he presumably takes the mound in Game 2 of the season opposite New York’s Noah Syndergaard.
“Fastball command was good,” Strasburg said. “Got really aggressive on it. But that’s OK, at this point. You don’t want to -- you want to work on stuff, but at the same time, well aware we open up with them. So, you know, don’t want to be featuring everything you might be featuring later on.”
Other recent realizations have reminded Strasburg he is now 30 years old, entering season 10 and just generally a legit veteran. He looked down at first base Saturday and recognized Stubby Clapp, a former Olympic player with Canada. Clapp, 46, was coaching first base for St. Louis. Strasburg turned to Erick Fedde: “‘I faced that guy in the Olympics.”
How did a Sunday afternoon conversation with media arrive at Clapp? Because Strasburg decided to face the Mets. Both Jacob deGrom and Syndergaard were lined up to pitch against the Nationals on Sunday and Monday, respectively. DeGrom was announced as sick Sunday. Syndergaard won’t be pitching in the split-squad game Monday. Instead, they will both pitch a minor-league game. Basically, the Mets chose to have their top two pitchers avoid the first opponent of the season.
Strasburg didn’t bother with such gamesmanship -- beyond relying on his fastball often. Instead, he took the mound then noted his status in the division.
“I mean, I’m the longest-tenured pitcher in the NL East,” Strasburg said. “What’s another start against the Mets? I think it just comes down to execution for me and that’s the same thing for everybody.”
The quote carries weight on three levels: Strasburg, somehow, realizes he has been in the division longer than any other pitcher. And only one starter is close to him. Season six is in front of deGrom. Season five is next for Syndergaard. Max Scherzer is entering his fifth season in the division. Same with Aaron Nola in Philadelphia. It’s technically year nine for Julio Teheran. However, he made six appearances total in his first two years.
Strasburg’s statement also shows inherent confidence that scouting reports can’t counter him when he’s on. Last, a T-shirt worthy slogan -- “What’s another start against the Mets?” -- came from him, of all people.
He was pleased to get a look at the Mets close to the opener.
“You want to see if they’re making any tweaks to their approach or if they’re going to be the same type of hitter,” Strasburg said. “I think over the years, you kind of realize that guys have certain strengths and they’re going to stick to those strengths much like myself.”
So, five innings, six hits, three earned runs, six strikeouts and two walks. Four of those hits happened in the fifth and sixth innings when Strasburg primarily threw first-pitch fastballs down the middle. His work was done in the first four innings when he carved through the Mets. It all left him happy. For now.
Soto rolling along
The box score claims Juan Soto was 3-for-4 Sunday with two doubles and a home run. Not so inside Soto’s brain. He thought he beat out a grounder for an infield single though he was called out.
“In my mind, it’s 4-for-4,” Soto said with a smile.
Soto has hit a home run in three of his last four games. His spring OPS is 1.288 after 35 at-bats. It’s spring -- always a necessary caveat -- but the point here is nothing indicates a change for Soto. If anything, he might be a better all-around player because he is improved defensively and on the base paths. The hitting situation has not changed.
“I feel really comfortable at the plate, I’m seeing the ball really well,” Soto said. “Better than when I got here. I’m almost ready.”
Taylor takes a first -- small -- step
Michael A. Taylor’s MRI revealed a sprained left hip and knee. Sunday, a modest workout sent him to social media to express his pleasure.
Thankful for the good news on my MRI!! Feeling good after hitting, throwing and running (in the pool) today. #Nationals #SpringTraining #MLB
Manager Davey Martinez clarified Taylor took one-handed swings off the tee, threw “lightly” from about 90 feet and did run in the pool. Martinez also called it an expected “baseline” for the day. The explanation appeared targeted to calm takeaways from Taylor’s tweet.
“We'll see how he comes back and feels tomorrow,” Martinez said. “But for us, that's a good thing that he's feeling that good. We'll see where it takes us in the next couple of days.”
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