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Strasburg better than results indicate in loss to Braves

Monday - 3/11/2013, 7:29pm  ET

AP: 3ec91773-dcd0-4779-8a42-f615fd810f19
Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, right, hands the baseball to manager Davey Johnson after being pulled in the sixth inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Atlanta Braves on Monday, March 11, 2013, in Viera, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Craig Heist,

VIERA, Fla. For the first five innings it looked like vintage Stephen Strasburg. However, that quickly faded when the pitcher gave up four runs in a six run Atlanta sixth inning. The Braves sent the Nationals to their fifth loss in their last six Grapefruit League games, winning 7-2.

Strasburg gave up one hit through the first four innings while facing the minimum. He walked a batter with two out in the fifth before getting a ground out to end the inning.

In the sixth inning, Strasburg gave up a one-out single to Reed Johnson, an infield single to Tyler Pastornicky and a walk to Jordan Schafer to load the bases. Justin Upton then hit a two-run single to give the Braves the lead.

Zach Duke relieved Strasburg and didn't fare much better.

After striking out Juan Francisco, Duke allowed an RBI single to B.J. Upton, a two-run double to Ernesto Mejia and an RBI double to Blake DeWitt.

When it was all said and done, Strasburg was charged with four of the runs on four hits over 5 1/3 innings. He walked two and struck out five and was asked to explain the sixth inning after being so dominant through the first five.

"I guess I was dealing so much that I didn't get much opportunity to get my command down out of the stretch," Strasburg said. "I did and then they ran into a couple of balls and got a broken bat bleeder and scored two. That's baseball."

Strasburg threw 76 pitches on the day and the right-hander has been working to get better out of the stretch, something he had a chance to do only twice through the first five innings.

It is something he will focus on the rest of the spring.

"I came into spring because I had a tough time holding runners so I changed the way I set up in the stretch," he said. "I've kind of gone in between what I was working on and what I've done in the past and so it's just being comfortable out there and getting the right feeling."

Regardless of the results in the sixth inning, Strasburg is happy with the way he is pitching this spring and with his repertoire of pitches.

"The change-up is there and when I use it less, its better," he said. "Curve ball command is better than it was last year; I am actually throwing it to both sides of the plate. Fastball was pretty much there all day and the sinker is getting better every time out."

"I thought he threw the ball great, he threw about 80 pitches," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "I thought he pitched very well. He'll have another one like that where he throws that many pitches and then he'll be about right. He was sharp. He really didn't use his change-up that much, just basically fastball and curve and moved it around. That's what he does; he's awfully good at that."

Duke struggles

Zach Duke was charged with two runs on three hits in 2/3 of an inning in place of Strasburg. Duke had allowed just one unearned run up until Monday's outing.

"Today wasn't a real food day for Zach," Johnson said. "He's had about six days off, pretty strong and didn't have much sink."

The Nationals are in need of left-handed help in the bullpen.

Although Duke's outing was his first real hiccup of the spring, collectively, the lefties have allowed 14 runs in 20 innings this spring. The Nats released Will Ohman last week. Bill Bray was sent to minor league camp along with Brandon Mann. Patrick McCoy and Fernando Abad are still with the team.

The Nats' bullpen, at least for now, includes Henry Rodriguez, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus and Duke with the back end of Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano. The last three each saved at least 30 games in a season.

Johnson doesn't appear to be too worried about the lack of another leftie in the pen.

"I feel comfortable. We have guys in the bullpen who are good against both righties and left so I'm not really all that concerned about it," he said.

Zimmerman looking good

Ryan Zimmerman was 1-for-3 on Monday with a solid single to right after grounding out to second in his first two trips to the plate. He is hitting .467 and appears to be right on track in his approach at the plate.

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