Justin Upton hit a two-run single in a four-run sixth inning Monday, helping the Atlanta Braves beat the Washington Nationals 7-2.
Making his fourth spring training start, Strasburg faced just one batter over the minimum entering the sixth. But after retiring Christian Bethancourt on a flyout, Strasburg allowed singles to Reed Johnson and Tylor Pastornicky followed by a walk to Jordan Schafer that loaded the bases.
Justin Upton singled in the first two runs of the game, Zach Duke relieved and B.J. Upton hit a two-out RBI single. Ernesto Mejia followed with a two-run double and scored on Blake DeWitt’s double. DeWitt added a run-scoring single in the eighth off Fernando Abad.
“I guess I was dealing so much that I didn’t have much opportunity to really get my command down out of the stretch,” Strasburg said. “They ran into a couple of balls, and got a broken-bat bleeder to score two. That’s baseball.”
Strasburg allowed four runs, four hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings and struck out five. He opened the game by striking out Pastornicky on three pitches, then two batters later caught Justin Upton looking. His breaking balls were effective, too, when he chose to use them.
“When I use it less, it’s better,” Strasburg said. “My curveball command is a lot better than what it was last year. I’m starting to actually throw it on both sides of the plate. My fastball was pretty much there all day, and my sinker is getting better every time out.”
Strasburg’s 2012 season was cut short because of a team-imposed innings limit in his first full season following elbow surgery. He has a 5.79 ERA in 14 innings and likely will get three more starts before the April 1 opener against Miami. The 24-year-old right-hander has been working on his stretch position after struggling to hold runners last year.
“I think early on, I got the right feeling,” he said. “Then it started to go away and I was missing more of my spots left and right and not throwing enough strikes.”
Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki noticed a definite change in the Strasburg from the previous time he caught the ace, on Feb. 28.
“This time was really good,” Suzuki said. “I thought he looked sharp, really sharp.”
Bryce Harper went 1 for 3 for Washington, and closer Rafael Soriano pitched a scoreless seventh. Washington’s Tyler Moore hit a solo home run in the ninth against Aaron Northcraft.
Atlanta starter Paul Maholm allowed two hits in five scoreless innings with five strikeouts.
“He had the big breaking ball, and he also had the changeup going,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Plus, he commanded his fastball on both sides of the plate.
Anthony Vavaro, a candidate for a spot in the Braves’ bullpen, pitched a scoreless sixth that included a called third strike on Harper, who is batting .438.
“He’s a guy that every time we run him out there, you know what you’re going to get,” Gonzalez said. “He threw a nice curveball to Harper on a 3-2 that froze him. That’s one thing we hadn’t seen all spring, that big breaking ball.”