Spring Training mind games? Definitely, maybe
Strasburg, Medlen stay mum on any potential gamesmanship, a la vintage Maddux
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- On paper, the Braves and Nationals are the top dogs in the National League East. They'll face each other 19 times in the regular season, and quite possibly again in October with a trip to the World Series on the line.
Their Grapefruit League camps are only about an hour apart, too. So Tuesday's 8-4 Atlanta win at Champion Stadium was the second of five March meetings this year.
It's been said that familiarity breeds contempt. In this case, it at least raises the question of whether it's possible to treat these Spring Training encounters the same as a random encounter with, say, the Twins.
Most players would have you believe that it's all about getting your work in and it doesn't matter what laundry the opposition is wearing. Nats ace Stephen Strasburg pitched two innings Tuesday. He could get four, five or even six starts against Atlanta in the regular season. Ditto for Kris Medlen of the Braves, who worked three innings. He projects to get multiple assignments against Washington.
Both young stars insisted they didn't change anything because of that. Which is gospel. Probably. Maybe. Because, think about it. If they were running some sort of misdirection play, the last thing they'd do is talk about it now. That would sort of spoil the whole point, wouldn't it?
The oral history of baseball is replete with tales of hitters who took, or swung at and intentionally missed, certain pitches during spring games with hopes of getting that same offering in a crucial situation when the games counted. Or pitchers who worked a hitter one way in March, looking ahead to fooling them with something different in September.
Some teams routinely shuttle their starters off to the Minor League complex to start on days they would otherwise be up against a divisional rival.
For years, Braves coach Eddie Perez was the personal catcher for Greg Maddux. Now, some of the stories can be told. Perez was fuzzy on some of the details Tuesday, but there's an essential truth when he talks about how the 2014 Hall of Famer would try to set up hitters far in advance.
Both tales involve Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. Because Houston trains in Kissimmee, which is practically next door, the teams were frequent Grapefruit League opponents. They also met in the playoffs in 1997, '99 and 2001, back when the Astros were in the NL.
During one exhibition, Perez visited the mound with Bagwell at the plate.
"He said, 'I want to throw a weird pitch against this guy,'" Perez recalled. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Just give me a weird sign and I'm going to throw something like a changeup.'"
The pitch started out normally, then dive-bombed. Bagwell stepped out of the box, turned to Perez and started yelling. "What was that? What was that? What was that?"
Even though Maddux never threw him that pitch again, he had an advantage because in the back of his mind he knew he had to look for it. Later, Maddux told Perez why he had done it.
"He said, 'See? They're thinking about me. Now I've got his mind set for the next time,'" Perez said with a laugh.
The other incident took place during the 1997 regular season, but the principle remains the same.
"We used to go over the hitters before the game, and he told me, 'Nothing inside on Bagwell,'" Perez said. "OK. So [now we're ahead] and all of a sudden he wants to go in. And Bagwell hits a foul ball, like 500 feet. Next pitch, he wanted to go in again. I'm thinking, 'What's his problem?' And he hit a home run.
"I was mad. I said, 'What the hell, man?' And he says, 'Two months from now, we're going to play them in the playoffs because they have a good team and they're going to make it. And he's going to be looking for that pitch.' I turned around and said, 'Whatever, dude,' and walked away. Two months later, we're in the playoffs. I'd already forgotten about what happened."
But Maddux hadn't forgotten and, just as significantly, neither had Bagwell. In the eighth inning of Game 1 of the '97 NL Division Series between the Astros and Braves, Atlanta was clinging to a one-run lead. Houston had the tying run on second with two outs. Bagwell was at the plate. Maddux struck him out on changeups away.
"We walk into the dugout and he says, 'Hey, you remember two months ago? He was looking for that pitch,'" Perez said, laughing again.
If Strasburg or Medlen engaged in any of that sort of gamesmanship Tuesday, they kept it strictly on the down low.
Strasburg openly talked about trying out his new slider against Braves center fielder B.J. Upton and catcher Evan Gattis, scoffing at the suggestion that he was giving up any sort of future edge by doing so.
"They've never seen it before," Strasburg said. "[But] in today's game, they've got scouting reports like you wouldn't believe. And we've got it on them. So the bottom line is that you have to go out and execute your pitches. If you do that, the odds are in your favor. It doesn't matter if they know it's coming."
"[Gattis] asked me if I wanted to do the Spring Training thing even though Bryce Harper is up there," Medlen said. "'Do you want to just locate your fastball?' And I'm like, 'Hell no.' Because I've seen what he does to fastballs. So we pitched more in-season, mixing up pitches and whatnot. I'm not saying that's how I'm going to attack guys, but I'm incorporating a lot of my secondary stuff.
"I've faced them before. The way scouting reports are now, I know exactly what guys can and can't hit, how often they hit it and what they hit on 3-1 counts. It's crazy, the stuff guys have. They know I have a two-seamer and locate to both sides. They know I have a changeup I throw early or late in counts. It's just a matter of mixing it all in."
And that's gospel. Probably. Maybe.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.