Stephen Strasburg moves one step from majors, called up to Class AAA Syracuse

By Dave Sheinin and Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; D01

The second phase of the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg Plan was executed Tuesday morning when the 21-year-old flame-throwing right-hander was promoted from Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA Syracuse, where he is expected to make up to six starts for the Chiefs before arriving in Washington by early June.

"I think that he's excited for the new challenge," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's a step in the direction that he wants to be in. Obviously, his confidence level is high. He believes that he can be pitching in the big leagues right now, and that's the confidence level we want him to be at. But he understands we're doing what's best for him and what's best for the franchise and the organization. He's on board with every step."

Strasburg, who signed a record-setting $15.1 million contract after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick of the June 2009 draft, received word of the promotion after throwing a previously scheduled bullpen side session Tuesday morning at Metro Bank Park in Harrisburg, Pa., before the Senators' 10:30 a.m. game against the Bowie Baysox. After the session, Strasburg was cooling down in the Senators' clubhouse when he was summoned to the manager's office.

There, Manager Randy Knorr and Nationals farm director Doug Harris delivered the hardly shocking news. The Nationals had long planned for Strasburg to make five starts in Harrisburg before moving up to Syracuse, and he mostly dominated during those five starts, going 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA.

"With all the speculation, I think he kind of knew what was up" when he was called into the office, Knorr said. "He was excited to go, just like all the others. And he was ready to move. There was nothing else for him to [accomplish] here. I think he wanted the next challenge."

In 22 innings for the Senators, Strasburg struck out 27 batters and walked only six. His stint in Harrisburg was highlighted by back-to-back wins over the Reading Phillies in which he allowed just one hit -- a flare into shallow center field -- in 10 overpowering innings. The only reason his ERA isn't lower is because he allowed three earned runs, mostly on weak grounders and bloops, in his final Harrisburg start, Sunday against the Altoona Curve.

"He's done everything that he can do at the Double A level," Rizzo said. "Now it's time for him to progress to more veteran hitters with a little bit more sense of the strike zone and to get that type of experience at that level."

While Strasburg frequently appeared to simply outclass opposing hitters in Harrisburg -- failing to give up a single hit against his curve ball, for example -- in Class AAA he will face older hitters.

"He'll be fine [in Class AAA]. He'll pitch the same," Knorr said. "He has very good stuff, and he's learning a lot about himself. He'll see what [the hitters] are trying to do against him. He picks it up pretty fast."

The Nationals, Rizzo said, want to see Strasburg continue to improve in the areas they laid out when he broke spring training -- fielding his position, controlling base runners and growing comfortable in the batter's box.

While the Harrisburg franchise reaped the benefits of Strasburg's presence -- gaining about 2,100 extra fans over its season average on days he pitched -- it came with unwanted side effects, such as a media pack that peaked at around 75 members for Strasburg's debut on April 11.

"Without all the attention that's brought, I think the guys are going to relax a little bit," Knorr said. "I think offensively, especially, we're going to be a little better. A lot of the guys have been pressing."

Now, the circus shifts four hours north up Interstate 81 to upstate New York, where the Chiefs are averaging only 3,915 fans at 11,000-seat Alliance Bank Stadium. By early Tuesday afternoon, the Chiefs' official Web site featured a large photo of Strasburg framed by a simple declaration: "Stephen Strasburg -- Friday, May 7, 7:00 p.m."

The people of Syracuse may not be the only ones eager for his arrival. One Nationals player was asked Tuesday who he'd choose to replace John Lannan, who will miss his next start with elbow pain. The player answered, simply: "Strasburg."

"He's an electric guy," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "He brings energy nobody else has."

One phase of Strasburg's development complete, the Nationals and their followers can only begin counting down the days until the final step begins.

Said Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman: "It'll happen soon enough."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company