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Stephen Strasburg, without his best stuff, gets through a 52-pitch start on guile

After an unspectacular outing, Stephen Strasburg's minor league numbers (6-1, 0.99 ERA) remain strong.
After an unspectacular outing, Stephen Strasburg's minor league numbers (6-1, 0.99 ERA) remain strong. (Nicholas Lisi/the Post-standard Via Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Pitching for once without his blazingest fastball, his bendingest curve, his disappearingest change-up, Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals' phenom right-hander, was getting by Monday night with some classically human attributes: a little bit of guile, a little bit of fight, a little bit of luck.

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Instead of dominating, he was merely surviving, against an aggressive lineup that was swinging early in the count against his fastball and having a surprising amount of success. Strasburg made it through a shaky third inning, an even shakier fourth, and was starting to get rolling again in the fifth.

And then he was gone.

Entering the dugout of the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs after the top of the fifth, Strasburg was pulled aside by pitching coach Greg Booker and told he was being lifted -- after only 52 pitches, with the game against the visiting Toledo Mud Hens tied at 2. Strasburg appeared dejected, but eventually found a spot on the dugout bench to cool down -- where he watched the Chiefs eventually move ahead and win, 6-3.

As Strasburg, 21, nears the end of his time in the minor leagues -- his major league debut is expected to come early next month, likely leaving him with only one more start for Syracuse -- the Nationals appear determined to save his bullets for the big leagues. It may go against Strasburg's hyper-competitive instincts, but he has little choice in the matter.

"It was kind of a shock to me. I'm not going to lie," Strasburg said about the shortened start. "But there's not much you can do. I don't want to create a big scene in the dugout."

He has now thrown 45 1/3 minor league innings. One more five-inning start, presumably this weekend in Syracuse, would put him almost exactly at the 50-inning threshold the Nationals targeted for him at the start of the season.

Strasburg's ninth minor league start, which came before a sellout crowd of 13,288 at Alliance Bank Stadium, was far from his sharpest. In fact, he gave up more hard-hit rockets than he had in his eight other outings combined. The damage included a triple, a double and three singles -- none of them cheap -- and two runs (one of which was unearned).

Strasburg allowed an unearned run in the third, when Deik Scram tripled and scored with two outs on a passed ball by catcher Devin Ivany. In the fourth, Carlos Guillén -- the Detroit Tigers' three-time all-star, playing for Toledo on a rehabilitation assignment -- led off by lining a change-up for a single, scoring three batters later on a sharp, groundball single to left by Casper Wells.

Wells has a history with Strasburg, holding the distinction as the only player to hit a grand slam off him since Strasburg signed a $15.1 million contract -- the richest ever for a drafted player -- last August. It came last October during the Arizona Fall League, the last of three homers Strasburg allowed in one disastrous inning.

The single earned run served to ruin Strasburg's perfect ERA in Class AAA, bumping it from 0.00 (constructed with 18 1/3 scoreless innings over his first three starts) to 0.39. Overall, including his five starts for Class AA Harrisburg, his professional record remains 6-1, and his ERA sits at 0.99.

Perhaps the better explanation for Strasburg's struggle Monday night was a karmic one: He was without two essential people in his life.

His regular catcher, Carlos Maldonado, who had caught each of his three scoreless starts for Syracuse, was called up the majors earlier Monday. And Strasburg's wife, Rachel, missed one of his starts for the first time, having returned to their native San Diego for a regularly scheduled visit.

Still, ordinary as he appeared Monday night, if Strasburg's worst day in the majors looks something like this one, the Nationals would gladly take that.

"He could pitch in the big leagues right now and have success," Syracuse Manager Trent Jewett said. "Is he a finished product? No. But I'd say there are a lot of guys in the big leagues right now who aren't finished products."

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