VIERA, Fla. (AP) — Stephen Strasburg battled some nerves and location issues during his spring training debut.
Other than those minor hiccups, the top prospect was pretty impressive.
Strasburg threw two scoreless innings in the Washington Nationals’ 9-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, responding well to the hoopla surrounding his first exhibition start.
“There was a lot of adrenaline flowing today,” he said. “It’s just great to get my feet wet because I know what to expect next time.”
Strasburg threw 15 of his 27 pitches for strikes and allowed two hits, successive two-out singles by Don Kelly and Alex Avila in the second. But the right-hander finished off Brent Dlugach with a bending, 81 mph breaking ball for an inning-ending strikeout.
“I just wanted to go out there and throw strikes,” Strasburg said. “If they hit it, they hit it. Big deal. I have enough confidence in my stuff that if I can go out there and make them put the ball in play, I’ve got a great defense behind me that’s going to back me up.”
Strasburg was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft and received a record $15.1 million, four-year contract from the Nationals. He went 13-1 in his final season with San Diego State, leading Division I pitchers in ERA (1.35) and strikeouts (195 in 109 innings).
It was clear that this wasn’t a normal spring game when fans lined the right-field stands to watch Strasburg warm up, creating an unusual spectacle. Pitching coach Steve McCatty encouraged the 21-year-old to breathe and be himself, but McCatty was aware of the effect of the intense scrutiny on his young pitcher.
“He was wired up pretty good,” McCatty said. “I patted on the chest and I could feel (his heart) thumping pretty good out there. It’s the kid’s first time, you know? There’s a lot of pressure on him … a lot of expectations to live up to.”
Strasburg is getting used to the fascination. He even sounded as if he believed it would start to dissipate in the wake of his debut.
“It’s a lot of craziness going on, a lot of hype, a lot of anticipation,” Strasburg said. “It’s all over with, it’s in the books. It’s all about getting better now and trying to learn as much as you can.”
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hopes that’s the case.
“Now he can work, settle in, blend in,” Zimmerman said. “Be normal again.”
Whether that effort will translate into a spot in the rotation is unknown. Manager Jim Riggleman, responding to a familiar question about whether Strasburg has a shot at the opening-day roster, reiterated that the club is trying to be open-minded.
“We’ll make that decision as an organization,” Riggleman said. “As far as he knows, he’s like anybody else: trying to make the club.”
Strasburg’s fastball against the Tigers was consistently measured in the 97-98 mph range and he struck out two. But he threw first-pitch strikes to only two of the eight batters he faced.
“Command wasn’t really there, but I think a lot of that had to do with the adrenaline going on,” he said. “It’s something that happens to me every time — even in college, even in high school. That first outing, there’s all this excitement and it’s really difficult to control the adrenaline and make sure you’re staying nice and relaxed.”
Riggleman was pleased to see that Strasburg succeeded in a variety of situations.
“Everything that you would want to happen, happened,” Riggleman said. “It was a limited number of pitches, but he threw some pitches out of the stretch. He threw after giving up a hit or two. He got behind in the count and came back. He threw his breaking ball when he was behind in the counts, mixed in a changeup when he was behind in the count.”
Strasburg impressed Tigers manager Jim Leyland, especially with his breaking stuff and a slider Leyland called “electric.”
“A lot of guys now are throwing 96, 97, but not many of them have that kind of breaking ball to go with it,” Leyland said. “He’s a very gifted young man, no question about that.”
Leyland believes Strasburg is nearly major league-ready.
“A guy like that’s probably not long for the minors,” he said.
Back in Washington, Strasburg’s debut was aired live on MASN, the cable TV network that shows Nationals games. Not surprisingly, the coverage was focused on one particular player. Two pregame promos referenced Strasburg, one calling him a “heralded pitcher” and the other a “pitching phenom.” The pregame show was 2½ minutes old before a player other than Strasburg was mentioned.
Once Strasburg actually pitched, he was praised repeatedly. When the 1-2-3 first inning was over, play-by-play announcer Bob Carpenter announced: “Stephen Strasburg’s first inning — a rousing, three-groundball success.”
Magglio Ordonez and Austin Jackson homered for the Tigers, and Kelly finished with three hits. Right-hander Rick Porcello yielded two hits three scoreless innings, allowing two hits.
The Nationals fell to 0-7 in exhibition games and have been outscored 76-34.