HARRISBURG, Pa. — When he peeled off his Harrisburg Senators uniform in the cramped home clubhouse at Metro Bank Park on Thursday night, Stephen Strasburg intended it to be his final act as a minor leaguer, not only for this season, but — heaven and health willing — forever. Five days hence, he should be donning the uniform of the Washington Nationals, and he might never again take it off.
But if this was Strasburg’s goodbye to minor league baseball, with all its charm and intimacy, it was a beautiful way to go out: a packed house, a splendid setting between forks of the Susquehanna River, future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, a division title at stake — and, if that weren’t enough, a between-innings appearance by the Cowboy Monkeys.
Even in the midst of such minor league nirvana, Strasburg was the evening’s main draw, and he delivered a performance worthy of that designation. In what is expected to be the final start of his rehabilitation assignment following elbow surgery 12 months ago, Strasburg threw six scoreless, one-hit innings as the Senators clinched the Class AA Eastern League’s Western Division title with a 10-0 victory over the visiting Portland SeaDogs.
Strasburg, 23, struck out four and did not allow a walk, throwing 71 pitches and mostly breezing through his stint. His next start is expected to be Tuesday night at Nationals Park against the Los Angeles Dodgers, completing a rehabilitation that will have taken exactly 368 days from his surgery on Sept. 3, 2010.
“Everything feels great,” Strasburg said, “so I’m ready to go out there and battle for the Nationals.”
With a large contingent of Nationals front-office types looking on — including principal owner Mark Lerner and General Manager Mike Rizzo — Strasburg hit 99 mph on the stadium radar gun in the early innings, before his fastball lost a few ticks in the later innings.
“I’m still learning a lot out there,” he said. “I’m starting to realize I don’t need to dial it up every time out there to get guys out.”
With Rodriguez, himself on a rehab assignment, calling pitches behind the plate, Strasburg allowed only two base runners — drilling poor Jeremy Hazelbaker in the ribs with a 97-mph heater in the fifth, then giving up a leadoff double to Dan Butler in the sixth — and allowed only four other balls to leave the infield. He also took care of Hazelbaker by spearing a comebacker and catching him in a rundown between second and third.
While Strasburg wasn’t as purely dominant as he was five days earlier for Class AAA Syracuse, when he struck out seven in his first five innings and carried a perfect game into the sixth, at this point such distinctions are mere quibbling. In his six rehab starts, covering 201 / 3 innings, Strasburg has a 3.54 ERA, with 29 strikeouts against only three walks.
Strasburg was so locked in Thursday night, he never even looked up while warming up before the fifth inning, as the Cowboy Monkeys — a pair of monkeys riding rodeo-style on a pair of collies, all of them “herding” a quartet of goats — ran around the outfield.
The only way the night could have been any richer was if Strasburg and Bryce Harper — this year’s Nationals phenom — could have been on the field at the same time. But alas, Harper, Harrisburg’s 18-year-old left fielder, was sidelined with a strained hamstring, which means the Strasburg-Harper pairing must wait until at least spring training.
Strasburg remained in the Senators’ dugout through the end of the game — and through one more between-innings appearance of the Cowboy Monkeys — and when the final out was secured, he took his place in the traditional handshake line between the dugout and the pitcher’s mound, as the Senators celebrated their division title, the franchise’s first since 1997.
But around the time Senators open their playoffs, Strasburg will be taking the mound some 120 miles to the south, back in the major leagues. His long journey back will be complete, but another one will be just beginning.
“The work isn’t done,” he said. “I need to keep on grinding. Finish the season strong. Go into the offseason healthy, and see what kind of pitcher I am in 2012.”