By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; D01
HARRISBURG, PA. -- Stephen Strasburg fist-bumped his infielders, handed over the ball and walked slowly off the mound at Metro Bank Park in the top of the fifth inning Sunday, his pitch limit reached, his afternoon finished. As he neared the Harrisburg Senators' dugout, much of the sellout crowd of 7,619 rose to its feet and applauded, but Strasburg kept his head down and his hands at his side, declining to acknowledge the ovation.
Many in attendance, no doubt, were envisioning a triumphant finale for Strasburg with the Washington Nationals' Class AA affiliate, as various media reports speculated last week that Strasburg would be promoted to Class AAA Syracuse after the game. But the afternoon was not quite a triumph -- instead, it became Strasburg's first professional loss -- and a Nationals official said there would be no promotion, at least not on Sunday.
In his fifth minor league start, Strasburg (3-1) turned in the worst performance of his young career -- although the numbers look worse than the outing really was. He allowed six hits, but all but one was weakly struck. He walked three, but dealt with a frustratingly tight strike zone. He lasted only 4 2/3 innings, but that was because he was on a strict 85-pitch limit, and when he reached 79 the Senators pulled him so as to avoid having to yank him in the middle of an at-bat.
"There's always going to be days when things just aren't going your way," said Strasburg, who signed a record-setting $15.1 million contract after being the first overall pick of the June 2009 draft. "That's the greatest thing about these types of days. That's when you can learn the most. As a pitcher, I went away from just consistently throwing the same quality pitches in the strike zone, because they did put it in play and get on base. Instead, I tried to make an even better pitch, and that's when I went out of the strike zone."
Facing the Altoona Curve (a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate) for the second time this season, Strasburg was victimized as much by circumstance as by his performance. His defense twice betrayed him, committing one physical error and one mental one -- when third baseman Ofilio Castro picked up a bunt that appeared to be turning foul, but instead became another single.
It also seemed as if every borderline ball-strike call went against him, and it was here that Strasburg, 21, occasionally let his frustration show on his way to allowing four runs (three earned). He froze at the end of his delivery when home-plate umpire Jon Byrne didn't give him a close call. He turned away in disgust. And at the end of the third inning, Strasburg stared down Byrne as he exited the field, prompting Byrne to make a gesture that seemed to say, "What's your problem, kid?"
"He stared at me and that was about it," Byrne said. "I wasn't too upset about that. I think that was the most runs he's given up since he's been here. He was probably a little frustrated. But he has really good stuff. That breaking pitch is pretty nasty."
Strasburg's outing in the 6-1 loss made his season statistics go from ridiculous to merely excellent, as the three walks equaled his total from the previous four starts combined, and his ERA shot up from 0.52 before the game to 1.64 after.
But from a development standpoint -- and with the Nationals watching closely to see how he handles adversity -- the game offered more hurdles to be overcome than his other starts combined, from a half-hour rain delay at the outset that forced him to start his warmup routine twice, to the tiny strike zone, to the barrage of dinks and bloops that fell in and forced him to pitch from the stretch position for much of the game.
"He's here to develop," said Nationals assistant general manager Bob Boone, who was on hand. "You have to experience a tight strike zone. You have to experience hitters getting cheap hits. That's going to happen [in the big leagues]. I was fine with the way he pitched. It was good for him."
The Nationals have been operating under a general blueprint that would see Strasburg make five starts for Harrisburg and five more with Syracuse, before arriving in the majors in early June, but there was room in that blueprint for adjustments, and the Nationals are remaining tight-lipped as to where Strasburg will make his next start. All a team official would say Sunday was that no announcement would be made that night.
Strasburg has a television interview scheduled for Monday at Harrisburg's stadium and his normal between-starts bullpen session slated for Tuesday. But after Sunday's game, several of Strasburg's teammates approached him for autographs, and the consensus in the organization, both in Washington and Harrisburg, is that he is ready for the next step -- not so much despite Sunday's difficult outing, but because of it.