VIERA, Fla. -- On the other side of the Stephen Strasburg Watch here -- and I'll get to that in a minute, because the kid is DEFINITELY worth watching -- the Nationals, believe it or not, actually are spending time on a few other things.
One of those is teaching outfielder Nyjer Morgan -- and others -- how to slide feet first.
If you've ever been one of those guys (or gals) watching a game when a player injures himself sliding head first into a base and you're reaction is, "Why do they risk getting hurt by doing that?!", then Nationals manager Jim Riggleman is going to be your kind of skipper.
Morgan missed the final 34 games of the season last summer when he broke his right hand sliding headfirst into third base against the Chicago Cubs in late August. To that point, he had been terrific in Washington, hitting .351 with 24 thefts.
The Nats were a completely different team with him gone, going 13-21 to finish the season.
Thus, this spring's project. Riggleman is the point man and his coaching staff is right there with him.
"Collectively, we're all encouraging it, and he's all on board," Riggleman says. "He was coming into camp saying, 'I've got to do this.' We want to get it done before games start."
Morgan isn't alone. Outfielder Justin Maxwell and anybody else who fancies sliding head-first is being asked to change, too.
"Our message to the guys, not just Nyjer, is, we'd like to get you to go feet first," Riggleman says. "If it's causing more problems than it's solving and you can't do it, then OK. But we've got to give it an effort."
Riggleman, an old school baseball guy, has made sliding feet first his pet project before in other places at other times.
"It's been an emphasis for me, personally," Riggleman says. "When I was the Cardinals' minor-league field coordinator, I asked my bosses and received permission to institute it throughout the system. From the '05 draft on, it was mandatory: You slide feet first.
"From the day they were drafted, we got them off of the plane and it was, 'Hello, how are you doing? You're going to slide feet first.'"
Riggleman says that Pete Rose always has been one of his favorite players, but he thinks a "generation" of players has grown up not knowing how to slide because everybody was too busy imitating Rose, figuring that headfirst slides are one way to show you're hustling.
Morgan, who grew into the Nats' sparkplug after they acquired him from Pittsburgh last summer, has been looking fairly natural going into the base with his feet, Riggleman says.
I stopped in Viera on Tuesday while driving across the state, just in time for the top overall draft pick from last summer to throw his second bullpen of the spring.
"I thought he threw good the other day," Riggleman said. "Today was off-the-charts good."
Only after a rocky beginning, though, because, truth be told, even the kid who is being talked about as possibly the greatest pitching prospect ever in the draft isn't completely built of steel. For a second, he buckled when he saw who was catching him: Pudge Rodriguez.
"It was a little nerve-wracking at first," Strasburg said. "He's a future Hall of Famer. I was thinking, 'Don't throw one at his ankles first pitch' and, sure enough, I did."
The nerves didn't last long, and Strasburg recovered quickly enough to go off the charts, in Riggleman's words.
In Strasburg's words, he learned a few things from Rodriguez during the bullpen session. He said Pudge worked with him on his sinker and changeup, suggesting a few approaches such as working both sides of the plate with the changeup rather than just the "arm side."
In college at San Diego State, Strasburg said, because of the aluminum bats, "the changeup is only a pitch you throw to left-handers." But with wood bats and precise execution, he said, that pitch should be one he is able to develop and throw to right-handers in the pros.
Already, he throws a four-seam fastball that touches 100 m.p.h., the change-up (clocked around 90), and a breaking ball in the high-80s and the sinker. He's been working with a circle-change as well, and he says he's getting some "good, consistent sink" on it.
Conventional wisdom still has Strasburg, 21, opening the season in the minors -- probably Class A Potomac, because it's Virginia (Woodbridge) location offers better weather than the colder early season conditions at Double-A Harrisburg (Pa.) or Triple-A Syracuse (N.Y.).
Sunblock Day: Not really. Gray skies and rain have moved back in, and the forecast for this weekend in central Florida is for chilly temps in the 50s and low 60s. Ugh.
Likes: Under general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman, there is a decidedly different air in Nationals camp this spring. It's by far the most professional atmosphere I've seen since the club moved to D.C. for the 2005 season. I'm not saying they're ready to contend, but I think they've got the right people in place in management and some really good young talent. Strasburg and Drew Storen, the club's future closer who also was a first-round pick last year, both are wickedly talented and have outstanding character. ... My favorite transaction of the spring so far is Jack Curry to the YES Network. Curry, the former New York Timesman who took the buyout, has too much to offer to disappear into the sunset. ... Didn't stop for Gator Jerky while whizzing past the stand on the Bee Line Expressway here the other day, but thought about it. ... Great steak the other night at Runyon's in Coral Springs, Fla., with one of my all-time favorite editors, Craig Stanke.
Dislikes: There's a dead fish in the parking lot of my hotel. A smallish guy, just laying there, all dried up and disgusting. Head on, eye looking up, the whole shebang.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:
"I got a part-time job at my father's carpet store
"Laying tackless stripping, and housewives by the score
"I loaded up their furniture, and took it to Spokane
"And auctioned off every last naugahyde divan
"I'm very well aquainted with the seven deadly sins
"I keep a busy schedule trying to fit them in
"I'm proud to be a glutton, and I don't have time for sloth
"I'm greedy, and I'm angry, and I don't care who I cross"
-- Warren Zevon, Mr. Bad Example