Stephen Strasburg ends minor league stint with another dazzler

Pitcher Stephen Strasburg made his last appearance as a Syracuse Chief on Thursday. Barring anything unforeseen, he will make his major-league debut for the Nationals on Tuesday.
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

BUFFALO -- He made 11 starts, including Thursday's minor league swan song, threw 785 pitches, suffered a couple of losses but otherwise dazzled at every stop. He logged nearly 2,500 bus miles, including 150 late Thursday afternoon as he returned to Syracuse with the Class AAA Chiefs, ate countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in cramped clubhouses, scraped the mud off his own cleats in the bowels of a dozen little stadiums.

He bided his time. And now the wait is almost over.

With one last display of overpowering pitching and preternatural poise, Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals' 21-year-old prized prospect, waved goodbye, most likely forever, to minor league baseball. His final act in the bushes came Thursday afternoon at Coca-Cola Field: a five-inning, three-hit, five-strikeout, scoreless performance in the Chiefs' 7-1 win over the Buffalo Bisons.

The victory, in front of a crowd of 14,774, left Strasburg with a 7-2 record in his 11 starts, split between Class AA Harrisburg and Syracuse. His ERA is 1.08 at Class AAA, and 1.30 overall. He struck out 65 batters and walked only 13 in 55 1/3 innings.

His next start, barring anything unforeseen, will come Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park, and everything about Strasburg -- from his statistics to his words to his body language -- screams that he is ready.

"That's for you guys to decide," Strasburg said when asked if he was ready. Then he quickly added: "I feel like I've been ready." Asked later how he would approach his big league debut, he shrugged, "Just another game."

Facing the toughest lineup of his brief career -- the Bisons boasted the International League's top hitter (Jesus Feliciano), two former big league regulars (Mike Jacobs and Russ Adams) and four others with big league experience -- Strasburg sometimes had to work hard to navigate his five innings.

At times, he struggled with his command, as he went to 2-0 counts to four of the first seven batters he faced, and the Bisons pushed him to full counts eight times. In his lowest moment of the game, he walked the opposing pitcher, Dillon Gee, with two outs in the third, drawing a mound visit from Chiefs Manager Trent Jewett.

"As polished as he seems and as gifted as he is, there's a lot to learn," Jewett said. Asked later whether Strasburg is prepared for the majors, he said, "He's exceptionally prepared. I think everyone in the organization feels that way. And was he not prepared, I don't think he'd be going. He's a well-armed young man."

In his 11 starts, Strasburg averaged 10.6 strikeouts and only 2.1 walks per nine innings. Granted, he was facing minor league hitters, but in the past 110 years only three big league pitchers have completed an entire season with both rates as good or better than those: Pedro Martínez (1999, 2000, 2002), Curt Schilling (1997, 2002) and Randy Johnson (2004).

Strasburg's minor league WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of .795 has been bettered at the big league level only twice: by Martínez in 2000 (.737) and Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators in 1913 (.780).

Those numbers suggest Strasburg does not belong in the minors, and perhaps never did in the first place. Another indication: the awe in the voice of the opposing manager.

"Why is he here?" Bisons Manager Ken Oberkfell asked, drawing a laugh from a media corps number around 25. "I'm impressed, very impressed. He's major league."

Strasburg returned to Syracuse with the Chiefs after Thursday's game, and Jewett said he didn't know when the phenom would leave for Washington. Strasburg has a bullpen side-session scheduled in Syracuse for Saturday.

Strasburg is not much for reflection, but when asked Thursday how he would sum up these past eight weeks, as he looks ahead to the future, he bit.

"It's been a pretty big adjustment from college," he said. "There's a lot more that goes along with playing professional baseball and being in the position I'm in. It's been great. I've met a lot of great people along the way, made a lot of great friends. I've learned a lot, and I'm excited to start learning up in the big leagues."

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