'Low-key' phenom puts on a display

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- For his first four days among his new teammates at the Washington Nationals minor league facility, Stephen Strasburg blended in. He introduced himself to the guys he hadn't met before. He threw in the bullpen. He ran sprints. If not for the name stitched across his shoulders, he could have been any other minor leaguer.

"Half the time," Class AA Harrisburg Manager Randy Knorr said, "you don't even know he's around."

Then 10 a.m. Wednesday arrived, and Strasburg made an utter mockery of Field 2.

If Strasburg's first action against a team of minor leaguers is any indication, his first months of professional baseball will be less about development than maintenance. Facing a collection of Nationals players likely to start the year in Class AA and AAA, Strasburg struck out nine and allowed a bloop single, three walks and no runs in 4 1/3 innings. He threw 79 pitches; batters hit two of them into the outfield and swung and missed at 11.

The third batter of the game, outfielder Marvin Lowrance, watched the second pitch Strasburg threw him, a 90-mph change-up that started below his belt and dived down to his knees. The umpire called a strike. Lowrance turned around to catcher Sean Rooney and asked, "What was that?"

It marked the first time Strasburg had stood out since the Nationals sent him to minor league camp Saturday morning. That day, he made the half-mile trek from Space Coast Stadium to the minor league complex. His schedule dictated he throw a bullpen session, so he did. After he finished his work, he was like a kid on the first day of school: He recognized some friends and tried to meet new ones.

"I said, 'What's up' to all the guys I didn't know," Strasburg said. "It was cool seeing all the guys from the Fall League."

As he said after his second big league spring training start, Strasburg is living in the now. Asked about his potential schedule once the regular season arrives, Strasburg mentioned he had a bullpen session in two days. He expressed disappointment in not making the Nationals, but he has enjoyed his first days as a minor league player.

"It's a little more low-key," Strasburg said. "It's a great feeling, though. It's focusing on the basics, focusing on the fundamentals. It's that foundation you need to build everything on."

Strasburg's primary mechanical focus is an odd one: The Nationals actually want him to deliver the ball slower from the stretch. A time of 1.35 seconds is considered ideal. At the start of spring, Strasburg was throwing to home plate in less than a second. The Nationals believe he could pitch with more efficacy, while still not giving base runners an advantage, by slowing down. On Wednesday, Strasburg made progress. He was timed between 1.15 and 1.25 seconds to home plate.

If Strasburg continues pitching as he did Wednesday, two months against minor league lineups might provide few challenges. At one point, he struck out five consecutive batters. He induced 32 swings, five of which resulted in a ball in play.

Pete Orr struck out swinging to end the second inning, flailing over a change-up that impersonated a splitter. Nationals first base coach Dan Radison, watching from a set of metal bleachers behind the chain-link backstop, asked rhetorically, "What do you do with that?"

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