'Low-key' phenom puts on a display

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; D04

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?"

Standing nearby, pitching coach Steve McCatty answered: "Just what he did. Swing and miss."

"You see guys, because he's got that powerful fastball, they are going to cheat up there," Rooney said. "When he throws a good off-speed pitch, they look ugly."

Strasburg's lone blemishes came in the third inning, when Dan Lyons blooped a single to shallow center, and in the fifth, which he concluded with two walks in just 10 pitches. Mostly, he dominated. Rooney had caught Strasburg in the Arizona Fall League, and Strasburg's performance Wednesday still surprised him.

"With his experiences so far in pro ball, he's gotten even better," Rooney said. "He's polished, man. And he's a great guy, too. He's in there to battle, every single pitch.

"He's here grinding every day, just like all of us. Besides the name on his back and his ability, he's out here busting his butt, just like everybody. He's got a level head."

Strasburg, the pitcher who makes you forget he's there except when he takes the mound, will be happy to receive equal treatment. He hopes when the spotlight follows him to minors, some of it finds his new teammates. What, he was asked, would Stephen Strasburg tell the people in Washington waiting to see him pitch?

"There's a lot of guys in the system who work really hard," Strasburg said. "I'm not the only one here. Don't just look at one player. Look at the entire team. Just be excited for the new season. Hopefully, I'll be there soon. If not, just hang with me. I'm working hard down here."

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