By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; D05
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When he entered the Syracuse Chiefs' dugout after his warmups Saturday night, with the first pitch minutes away, the stadium overflowing with fans and a gorgeous late-spring sky overhead, Stephen Strasburg wasn't just feeling the electricity -- he was generating it. He tapped fists with every last one of his teammates, gulped down some liquids and prepared to go to work.
About 100 minutes later, when he was pulled in mid-inning from what stands as the worst start of his minor league career, Strasburg's body language was far different. He walked head-down into the dugout, ignoring every outstretched hand and pat on the back his teammates offered.
There was nothing outwardly wrong with Strasburg as he started for the fifth time as a member of the Class AAA Chiefs, his 10th time as a Washington Nationals minor leaguer. His fastball still rang up plenty of 99-mph readings on the stadium radar gun, while his wicked curveball and change-up induced their usual assortment of awkward swings.
But there were several other moments Saturday night, during Strasburg's five-plus-inning, 86-pitch start in the Chiefs' 3-2 loss to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, where he looked merely ordinary -- even if everyone knows he is anything but.
One of those moments came in the third inning, when a 26-year-old journeyman named Rene Rivera -- whom the Yankees had signed eight days earlier out of the independent Atlantic League -- became the first hitter to homer off Strasburg this season. Rivera, who played 53 games in the big leagues in the middle part of the last decade, blasted a 99-mph fastball out of the park in right-center field.
"His fastball is ridiculous," Rivera said. "I just told myself: 'Be short, be quick. See the fastball, hit the fastball.' "
As the crowd of 13,115 at Alliance Bank Stadium let out a collective gasp, Strasburg appeared livid with himself as the ball exited the playing field, screaming something into his glove before gathering himself quickly and finishing off the inning.
"It happens," Strasburg shrugged afterward. "Guys are going to run into it every now and then."
Two innings later, a pair of groundball singles, a walk and a balk -- Strasburg's first of the season -- loaded the bases with no one out and brought Chiefs Manager Trent Jewett to the mound with the hook. By the time two of the inherited runners scored against Chiefs reliever Josh Wilkie, Strasburg's 0.39 ERA through his first four starts with the Chiefs had risen to 1.27, and his overall ERA in the minors -- 0.99 entering the game -- shot up to 1.43.
"These things will happen," Jewett said. "He's human."
By one subjective measure, the outing surpassed his May 2 start for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators against the Altoona Curve as the worst of Strasburg's brief career. Both times, he allowed six hits and three earned runs, but the majority of hits in the Altoona game were weakly struck. On Saturday night, the majority were hard-hit. The home run and the balk, for that matter, would break all ties.
Still, such talk must come with this disclaimer: If this was Strasburg at his worst, anyone who has ever stood atop a pitcher's mound would take it. He had moments of sheer dominance. He struck out the side in the fifth (working around a two-out single) on a curveball and two fastballs. He fielded his position exquisitely, handling three tough comebackers with ease. And he threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of his final 14 batters.
"It's amazing," veteran catcher Jamie Burke said of his first experience catching Strasburg in a game. "I've been playing this game for 17 years, and I've never experienced anything like that."
All indications are that Strasburg will make another start for Syracuse at the end of the week, then take the mound for the Nationals at Nationals Park the following week. That moment will still be awaited breathlessly in Washington. Nothing that happened here Saturday night should change that.