Strasburg brings new pitch, renewed focus into '14
Special to MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Add another weapon to Stephen Strasburg's arsenal, as the right-hander debuted his slider on Tuesday afternoon against the Braves at Champion Stadium in his first Grapefruit League outing of 2014.
He threw the pitch three times in two scoreless innings, clocking in at 86 mph on the first two before dialing it up to 88 mph on the third. He developed the offspeed pitch to help disguise his fastball, which topped out at 96 mph on Tuesday.
"I wanted it to look as much like a fastball as possible, so if I get a little bit of movement, that's all I'm really looking for," Strasburg said of the slider. "I'm not going to dump my other offspeed pitches for it. It's just going to be something to keep them from cheating to the fastball as much."
But Strasburg was not simply throwing his newest pitch to see what it could do. He used it as an out pitch against the heart of Atlanta's order. And although he developed it to use against left-handed batters, he tried it against a couple of batters from the right side of the plate.
Facing center fielder B.J. Upton with one out in the first, Strasburg sandwiched a fastball between two sliders in the latter half of the six-pitch at-bat. On a 3-2 count, Upton whiffed at the second slider.
One inning later, Strasburg fired a slider inside to jam catcher Evan Gattis, who grounded the breaking ball to second baseman Anthony Rendon for an easy out.
"It's another wrinkle," manager Matt Williams said. "It's another pitch off of his fastball. It's got really good velocity, and we saw he can get a lot of swing-throughs with that. It can certainly neutralize left-handed hitters."
Although Atlanta is a division rival, Strasburg had no reservations about debuting the pitch on Tuesday.
"In today's game they've got scouting reports like you wouldn't believe, and we've got it on them," he said. "So the bottom line is that you have to go out there and execute your pitches, and the odds are in your favor. It doesn't matter if they know it's coming."
Strasburg's new slider was impressive, but his other pitches also proved effective on Tuesday. In his first game action since October surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow, he needed only 15 pitches to get through the first six batters in the Braves' lineup.
But Tuesday was about establishing a comfort zone on the mound, something he feels will improve as he starts more games.
"Once I get my mechanics a little bit cleaned up and a little bit in sync, I'll start to throw a little bit harder," he said. "So, you know, I felt pretty good today, but I felt a little bit out of sync at the same time, but that's kind of like how it happens every year."
Designated hitter Justin Upton accounted for Atlanta's only hit off Strasburg on Tuesday, singling a first-pitch fastball up the middle with one out in the second.
Although the base hit left a mark on the box score, it gave Strasburg an opportunity to work on pitching with a runner on base, another area he wants to address during Spring Training.
Strasburg, who attempted to pick off Upton, wants to heighten his awareness of men on base without them becoming a distraction. One technique he will use is varying time between his pitches to throw off baserunners.
He wants to put the focus where it should be -- "executing the pitch."
"That's going to be huge to me," he said of dealing with men on base. "The big thing is, I've just got to make it second nature."
Meanwhile, Strasburg pushes pitching to the forefront and continues to develop into the ace the Nationals drafted him to be. With a new pitch and renewed focus, he is aiming to lead Washington back to the postseason.
"It's been quite a long offseason, a lot of changes going on, so it's good to go out there and compete again," he said.