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Stephen Strasburg allowed one run over five strong innings tonight.
"He was hitting it in the fairway today," Johnson said, "instead of 400 yards into the rough."
Indeed, six days removed from a ragged spring training start in which he admittedly tried too hard to overpower the Braves lineup, Strasburg tonight dialed it down a notch. He left his driver in the bag, pulled out a 3-wood instead and proceeded to carve up the Mets' "A" lineup for five strong innings.
His fastball registered a mere 94-95 mph in the early going before topping out at 97 mph later in the outing. Most importantly, the Nationals right-hander emerged from an 85-pitch outing with his surgically repaired arm feeling as strong as ever.
"I definitely could have gone back out there," he said after racking up his highest pitch count since Aug. 15, 2010 (six days before his ulnar collateral ligament snapped in Philadelphia).
Strasburg wasn't in absolute top form. He battled some command issues early and wasn't as efficient as he would have liked. But the end result was more than enough to bring a smile to his manager's face.
"He's so intense," Johnson said. "He's his toughest critic. You can't talk to him during a game. He's like talking to that brick wall there. He's really competitive. But I saw what I wanted to see from him."
Strasburg's lone mistake of the evening -- a fourth-inning fastball up and away to Lucas Duda that wound up clearing the left-field fence for a solo homer -- probably never should have happened. One pitch earlier, Strasburg froze Duda with a devastating curveball that even left the batter taking a step toward the dugout thinking he had just struck out.
Plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, though, called the pitch a ball, prolonging the at-bat and setting the stage for Duda to homer moments later.
"That was a pretty good pitch," catcher Wilson Ramos. "It was a perfect pitch. That was strike three, but whatever. That happens in the game."
"That's baseball," Strasburg said with a shrug. "Bottom line is that it happens and I've just got to learn from it."
Strasburg even proved adept in the field and at the plate. He dodged a shard of a broken bat from Josh Thole, fielded the tough comebacker and calmly threw to first for the out in the bottom of the second.
"I was so locked in, I saw the ball first and I saw the barrel flying, but I didn't really think about getting hit by it," Strasburg said. Later, he added: "Bottom line is that I wasn't going to let the ball get by me, even if I got smoked with the bat. I mean, that would suck. It would hurt. But I wasn't going to let the ball get by me."
And in the first plate appearance by any Nationals pitcher this spring, Strasburg managed to smoke a hard chopper that ate up New York second baseman Daniel Murphy and beat it out for a single.
By night's end, Strasburg had accomplished several things none of his rotation mates has done yet. He stroked that base hit. He went five full innings. And he reached the 85-pitch mark.
All of this leaves the 23-year-old on track to pull off another first in about two weeks: Take the mound at Wrigley Field on Opening Day.
Johnson hasn't announced his season-opening rotation yet, but all signs point to Strasburg earning the Opening Day nod. By having all five of his starters take an extra day of rest this week around the Nationals' lone off day of the spring, Strasburg is now lined up to make two more exhibition starts: Sunday against these same Mets, then March 30 against the Marlins.
Assuming everyone gets another extra day of rest to account for the April 4 workout day in Chicago, Strasburg will get the ball the following afternoon against the Cubs.
Whether he chooses to break out his driver that day or stick with the trusty 3-wood remains to be seen.