VIERA, Fla. — Stephen Strasburg moved one step closer to being ready for his opening day start by striking out eight Houston Astros Saturday night.
The 24-year-old right-hander threw a spring training-high 93 pitches in 5 1-3 innings of a 4-2 loss to the Houston Astros.
The overpowering command is there: At one point, Strasburg struck out five batters in a row – that streak was broken up by former teammate Rick Ankiel's solo homer in the fourth inning.
Now, he just needs to get his pitch-count up a bit.
"When you get to this point and you start to get to closer to 100 pitches, you're like, `All right, let's get the season going,'" Strasburg said. "But that's not the case. I've still got a couple of weeks. I'm just going to keep working and keep grinding."
Strasburg did make one significant improvement from his last start, adjusting his spot on the rubber when he pitched from out of the stretch. He struggled with that in his last outing against the Atlanta Braves on March 11.
"I felt better out of the stretch today," Strasburg said. "I just made an adjustment of where I put my foot on the rubber. It seemed to help me use my legs a little bit better and get on top of the ball."
Saturday night also marked the debut of Ryan Zimmerman playing defensively at third base. Zimmerman, who had shoulder surgery on Oct. 25, had been serving as the Nationals designated hitter this spring.
It didn't take long for Zimmerman to get tested. Houston's Carlos Corporan led off the second inning with a slow roller up the third base line that Zimmerman had to field on the run and throw across his body to get the out at first base.
"I was a little nervous in the first inning, but everything was good," Zimmerman said. "I felt better each inning. It was good to back out in front of people and get back into a game."
Astros starter Lucas Harrell could probably say the same thing. The right-hander missed his last scheduled start because of a groin injury, but when four scoreless innings Saturday night. He did not allow a hit while walking two and striking out three.
"I feel great," Harrell said. "It was one of those things where I mixed it up, used all of my pitches and used the defense (to make plays)."
Harrell reported no problem with his groin injury and said he felt like he could have gone a couple more innings.
The Astros pitcher did have one scare, though, in the bottom of the fourth when he sawed off Zimmerman on an inside pitch and the broken bat sailed over his head.
Harrell immediately hit the deck, avoiding all but a small particle of the bat, which hit him in the face.
"You've always got to protect yourself out there and when . almost the entire bat's coming at you at head level, it can definitely be a little bit scary," Harrell said. "But I got away. Luckily, I didn't get hit."
NOTES: LHP Ross Detwiler rejoined the Nationals on Saturday, one day after Team USA was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic on Friday night in Miami. Detwiler will pitch Sunday for Washington against Detroit . LHP Gio Gonzalez, meanwhile, is not expected to be back until Monday. "He's staying at home with his buddies,' Johnson said of Gonzalez, who is from nearby Hialeah. The Nationals manager was sure Gonzalez was getting his work in and added the left-hander will likely throw at the team's minor league complex on Monday. . RHP Chris Young is expected to make two more starts for the Nationals this spring, the next outing coming on Wednesday. . Johnson said as of now Dan Haren is his No. 4 starter, while Detwiler is No. 5. The team has already announced Strasburg will start opening day. He is expected to be followed by Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. .The Astros had a scare during batting practice when first base coach Dave Clark was hit in the head by a thrown ball and fell to the ground. A large crowd gathered around Clark, who got up after several minutes and later assumed his first base coaching duties once the game started. . Astros manager Bo Porter was eager to get his first glimpse of three prospects – infielders Carlos Correa and Jonathan Singleton, as well as outfielder Domingo Santana. Previously, he only read minor league reports about the trio and watched them field ground balls and take batting practice. "That's one of the reasons why we brought them over today, to give not only myself but the rest of the staff an opportunity to see these guys in action." . Right fielder Fernando Martinez left the game after the top of the first inning with back tightness.