As major league debut draws nearer, Washington Nationals prospect Stephen Strasburg shines again

Stephen Strasburg's scoreless streak stands at 211/3 innings after Wednesday night's win for Syracuse.
Stephen Strasburg's scoreless streak stands at 211/3 innings after Wednesday night's win for Syracuse. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- As Stephen Strasburg's date with destiny in Washington draws nearer, the Washington Nationals wanted to push their phenom right-hander past 90 pitches for the first time as a minor-leaguer Wednesday night.

So, as "God Bless America" gave way to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the middle of the seventh inning, Strasburg put his cap back on his head and jogged out to the Frontier Field mound one last time.

He would face just one batter in the inning -- a strikeout, naturally, on a 96-mph heater at the knees -- then depart to a standing ovation from a starstruck, overflow crowd of 12,590. One more milepost reached, one more opponent rendered helpless, one step closer to the majors.

Strasburg tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings for the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs in a 5-1 victory over the host Rochester Red Wings. Although it wasn't as effective as the six-inning, no-hit performance in his last trip to the mound, it extended his string of scoreless innings to 21 1/3 , with all but three coming at Class AAA.

Strasburg, 21, is likely to make his big league debut for the Nationals on June 4 at Nationals Park against the Cincinnati Reds. That leaves two more starts for the Chiefs, the first of which is scheduled for Monday night at Syracuse's Alliance Bank Stadium against the Toledo Mud Hens.

On Wednesday night, Strasburg extended his string of no-hit innings to 10 before giving up an infield single to Trevor Plouffe in the bottom of the third.

He would allow two more hits before the night was over -- plus two walks -- but was otherwise as dominant as ever, striking out nine batters with his assortment of hissing fastballs (he was clocked as high as 99 mph on the stadium radar gun), diving change-ups and wicked curveballs.

In eight starts -- five for Class AA Harrisburg, three for the Chiefs -- Strasburg is 6-1 with an 0.89 ERA and 49 strikeouts against 10 walks in 40 1/3 innings. At Class AAA, he is 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA, collecting 22 strikeouts against four walks in 18 1/3 innings.

Facing a Red Wings lineup that included four former major-leaguers, Strasburg was without his typical command in the early innings, going to 2-0 counts on three of the first four batters he faced and needing 53 pitches to close out the first three innings. But he twice erased base runners by inducing double-play grounders, and the Red Wings only once advanced a runner to third base.

"I was kinda maybe a little out of whack," Strasburg said. "But I kind of settled down and it started to click, and when it started to click it's like, let 'er eat."

By the end, Strasburg was as overpowering as he has ever been in the minors, striking out six of the final eight batters he faced -- three on curveballs (two of them swinging), two on fastballs and one on a change-up. Red Wings swung at curveballs in the opposite batter's box, fastballs at their eyes and change-ups in the dirt.

Said Rochester Manager Tom Nieto, "You have to cheat to get to that fastball, and then when he pulls that change-up out -- he's pretty remarkable."

Like most host teams that have welcomed Strasburg to town during his two-month tour of the minors, the Red Wings went all-out to capitalize on the phenomenon.

The team sold standing-room-only tickets for a pair of grass berms in either corner of the outfield, allowing the team to squeeze in some 2,000 extra fans. It also sold 144 Washington Nationals T-shirts with Strasburg's name and number (37) on the back. Cost: $19.99. By comparison, a Red Wings T-shirt featuring the name and number of 1981 Red Wings star Cal Ripken Jr. could be had for a mere $15. The Strasburg T-shirts sold out by mid-game. Plenty of the Ripkens remained.

With Strasburg's pitch count at 86 -- already a season high -- after six innings, the Chiefs nonetheless sent him back out for one batter in the seventh. When Manager Trent Jewett strolled to the mound to remove him, the crowd rose and roared as Strasburg approached the Chiefs' dugout.

Would he acknowledge the crowd with a doff of the cap? Nope. He kept his head down the whole way, tapping fists with teammates as he hit the dugout steps. Apparently feeling snubbed, the crowd went from cheers to boos in an instant as Strasburg disappeared from view.

"I've never had a standing ovation before in my life," he said. "But the game wasn't over and I feel like I haven't really proven anything yet. Hopefully down the road in D.C. someday, I'll tip my cap. But for now I still have a lot to work on."

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