Stephen Strasburg fielded the sharp, one-hop comebacker with textbook form, jogged a few steps toward first base and underhanded a flip to the first baseman, closing out the third inning on Friday night. Then he kept jogging, across the foul line, across the ribbon of grass, and into the arms of the awestruck Potomac Nationals teammates awaiting him in their dugout.
For 33 riveting pitches, in the second minor league start of his rehabilitation assignment following elbow surgery nearly a year ago, Strasburg looked every bit a blossoming major league ace who could do anything he wanted with the baseball — one who was limited only by a predetermined innings count.
Over three crisp innings in front of an overflow crowd of 8,619 at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge — a mere 29 miles from Nationals Park, where fans of the Washington Nationals swooned over him last summer — Strasburg, 23, overpowered the visiting Myrtle Beach Pelicans in a Class A Carolina League game, striking out five of the 12 batters he faced in the P-Nats’ 1-0 victory.
“Obviously,” said Spin Williams, the Nationals’ minor league pitching coordinator, “he looked like he was in midseason form.”
Although Strasburg allowed two hits, both were of the infield variety, and neither was well-struck. In fact, five days after giving up a homer and two hard-hit singles in his first rehab start for low-Class A Hagerstown, Strasburg did not allow a ball to leave the infield. In addition to the five strikeouts, there were three groundouts and an infield popup. His fastball topped out at 99 mph and regularly registered at 96 to 97, and he mixed in more change-ups and curveballs than last time, both to devastating effect.
“I tried to treat it more like a normal game: throw the pitches I wanted to throw in certain counts,” he said. “I felt better.”
Strasburg expended so little effort in breezing through his three assigned innings that he went to the bullpen — accompanied by two Prince William County police officers and, at a safe distance behind, Uncle Slam, the P-Nats’ mascot — to throw an additional dozen or so pitches to round out his evening’s work.
He is expected to make at least four more minor league starts — his inning and pitch limits increasing each time — with the next start Wednesday, most likely at Hagerstown. Strasburg figures to arrive back in Washington early next month, with Sept. 6 the likeliest date.
“I know I’m going to be the pitcher I was,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Since signing his $15.1 million contract in August 2009, Strasburg had been a Phoenix Devil Dog, a Harrisburg Senator, a Syracuse Chief, a Washington National and, most recently, a Hagerstown Sun. Friday night’s stopover here was less another rung on the ladder than another jersey for the collection.
The team sold all available seats at the 6,000-seat stadium by Wednesday morning, within 24 hours of the announcement that Strasburg would be pitching here, and also sold hundreds of standing-room-only tickets. By early afternoon, signs saying “SOLD OUT!” went up on the ticket windows outside the stadium.
The media’s appetite for Strasburg, which spiked following his brilliant major league debut on June 8, 2010, and which merely went into hibernation while he was away rehabbing his elbow, shows few signs of waning. Although the number of credentials issued went down from about 65 in Hagerstown on Sunday to about 50 on Friday night, he remains a national story — tellingly, ESPN sent a reporter, producer and cameraman to do live cut-ins during Strasburg’s half-innings.
Strasburg’s skills may place him several developmental rungs above the visiting Pelicans, but it is worth remembering that, because of his youth, they are actually his peers: Six of the nine batters in Myrtle Beach’s lineup were older than Strasburg.
But it is probably safe to say none had never seen pitching like this, and they may never again, unless they make it to the big leagues themselves and cross paths again with big No. 37.