By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; D01
CLEVELAND -- Late Sunday morning, Stephen Strasburg lounged on a couch in the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field, watched college baseball on television and, for a few moments, fell asleep. Once he woke up and before he pulled on his Washington Nationals uniform, Strasburg played the Big Buck Hunter arcade game in the clubhouse.
For five days, the sports world wondered how Strasburg could follow his otherworldly major league debut, how he could possibly top 14 strikeouts and millions of hanging jaws. Strasburg played catch and threw in the bullpen. "Just another week, you know?" Strasburg said.
As 32,876 -- including Nationals owners Ted and Mark Lerner -- packed the stadium, Strasburg validated his momentous debut with another overwhelming performance in the Nationals' 9-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians. Though he cruised early on and won comfortably, Strasburg could not recapture the utter dominance from his maiden start, undone by five walks in his final 12 batters and bothered, oddly, by a crater that developed on the Progressive Field mound.
Strasburg struck out eight, walked five and allowed two hits -- a solo home run by Travis Hafner and a bloop single by Carlos Santana -- in 5 1/3 innings. Twice, members of the grounds crew scurried to the middle of the diamond and adjusted the mound. Strasburg exited to a cascade of boos after he loaded the bases by walking the final two batters he faced, shaking his head as he disappeared into the dugout.
The results were not as eye-popping, the feeling not as magical. But Strasburg, if he even needed to, proved without question his first start was no fluke.
"I thought he was actually throwing the ball better today than he did the other night," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "The line score is not going to indicate how well he threw the ball today."
Strasburg's strange, sudden end followed an overpowering start. In the 1-2-3 first inning, Strasburg threw eight fastballs. Five zipped at 100 mph, and the other three hummed at 99. For the game, he threw 10 pitches 100 mph.
"Velocity, it doesn't matter," Strasburg said. "It's more important to fans, because they like seeing triple digits or whatever. When you're actually playing this game, it's all about locating the fastball, not how hard you throw it."
Strasburg struck out the first two batters he faced, which, combined with the seven Pittsburgh Pirates he whiffed to end his debut, extended his streak to nine straight strikeouts. The record, held by Tom Seaver and Eric Gagné, is 10.
Santana lined out to left to end the first, but Strasburg became one of only five pitchers in the past decade to strike out nine straight.
Strasburg surrendered Hafner's home run in the third, a line-drive on a 100-mph, low-and-inside fastball over the right field fence. Strasburg wanted to throw a sinking fastball that darted away from Hafner, but the pitch cut toward him.
He still had not walked a major league batter until the fourth, when Santana drew a free pass on a 3-2, 98-mph fastball outside. Strasburg had 19 career strikeouts before his first career walk, three shy of the post-1900 record Johnny Cueto set in 2008.
Strasburg walked Hafner on five pitches, and something was clearly wrong for Strasburg. Before the fifth inning, he revealed the problem. Strasburg kicked dirt at the base of the mound, where a hole had formed at the spot where his left foot lands during his delivery. "It was very ugly out there," catcher Iván Rodríguez said. He called for an umpire, who called for the grounds crew.
Late in his start Saturday night, Nationals starter J.D. Martin kicked at the dirt to fill in a hole. "I slipped a few times on it," Martin said. "It wasn't too bad."
"I wish I could have handled it a little bit better," Strasburg said. "It kind of got me into a little funk."
Three grounds crew members rushed to the mound with various tools -- a stomping tool, a broom, a bag of dirt. The mound fixed, Strasburg walked one batter, former National Anderson Hernández, in the fifth but otherwise pitched without issue.
In the sixth, his outing unraveled. With one out, Santana singled. Hafner followed with a five-pitch walk. Riggleman hollered from the dugout, then jogged to the mound as the home plate umpire again called for the grounds crew. As they again doctored the mound, the crowd jeered.
"When it comes to something like that, you could slip one time and roll an ankle and you could be out for a few weeks," Strasburg said.
Once the mound was fixed, Strasburg walked Austin Kearns on five pitches. His pitch count, 38 after three innings, had rocketed to 95 with one out in the fifth and the bases loaded. Riggleman again trudged to the mound, and Strasburg handed him the ball.
The aberration of Strasburg walking five suggested the mound posed a legitimate issue. In 28 collegiate starts, Strasburg never walked more than three, and that happened once. In 11 minor league starts, he also never walked more than three, and it happened only once there, too.
"It happens," Strasburg said. "You look at some of the greatest pitchers of all time. I'm sure you can look in their stat books and they've walked a few guys in some outings."
Drew Storen, Strasburg's best friend on the team and the Nationals' other first-round pick in the 2009 draft, bailed Strasburg out of his biggest jam. From Russell Branyan, one of Cleveland's most dangerous batters, Storen induced a 3-2 pop fly to shallow right. He then struck out Jhonny Peralta, ending the inning and stranding all three runners.
The Nationals gave Strasburg ample support, pounding 16 hits and scoring more than eight runs for the third time this year. Adam Dunn gave the Nationals the lead for good with a solo home run in the fourth.
The Nationals broke the game open with four runs in the sixth, a two-run double by Rodríguez and a two-run triple by Ian Desmond providing the bulk of the damage. They added three more in the eighth, when Roger Bernadina jolted a two-run, pinch-hit home run.
Strasburg, despite control problems and weirdness, needed little from the offense. His second start could not match the electricity of his first, but what could?
In the first 12 1/3 innings of his career, Strasburg has struck out 22 batters and allowed three runs. He did nothing to quench the next phase of anticipation, to stop anyone from wondering what he might do five days from now.
"Yeah, he's pretty good," Rodríguez said. "He's done amazing."