Even on an off night, Stephen Strasburg still impressed.
Strasburg, who had not allowed a run in winning his first three Triple-A starts for the Syracuse Chiefs, went five innings Monday night against the Toledo Mud Hens, allowing five hits and two runs, one earned. He left with the score tied at 2, but his team won 6-3.
“Today was one of the games where you didn't really have all your stuff working,'' said Strasburg, who threw 52 pitches, 36 for strikes, did not walk anyone and struck out five. “Those are the games where you're going to have to go out there and pitch and really do your best to stay in it. I was able to do that and we came out with a win. What can I say?''
The right-hander had allowed only four hits and no runs in 18 1-3 innings in his first three starts. In 45 1-3 innings in eight starts between Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg, he has struck out 54 and yielded just 22 hits and 10 walks. He has an overall ERA of 0.99 – 0.39 with the Chiefs.
Strasburg, the top pick in the 2009 amateur draft by the Washington Nationals, was finally touched for an unearned run in the third, ending his scoreless streak at 20 1-3 innings at the minors' highest level. Deik Scram hit a hard grounder over first base and down the right-field line for a triple and scored on a passed ball.
“It was a little more stressful for him tonight,'' Chiefs manager Trent Jewett said. “I didn't think he was as sharp as he had been, but he's good. I felt like he competed all the way and made the best of what he had tonight, which is much better than most. An off night for a guy that good is still a real good night.''
In his previous start last Wednesday in Rochester, Strasburg allowed three hits and struck out nine in 6 1-3 innings. He started strong again on a picture-perfect night with temperatures in the low 80s, breezing through the first inning on seven pitches against the aggressive Mud Hens.
Will Rhymes and Carlos Guillen put the ball in play on the first pitch, and both hit soft fly balls to the outfield before Strasburg caught Scott Sizemore looking at a 2-2 curve to end the inning.
Jeff Frazier singled to center with one out in the second for Toledo, hitting an 81 mph curve up the middle on a 1-1 offering. Strasburg then struck out Casper Wells with an 83 mph curve after five straight pitches registered 96 mph or faster on the Alliance Bank Stadium radar gun. Brent Dlugach was retired on a comebacker to end the inning.
Kevin Mench was ejected after a called third strike in the bottom of the third and Jewett followed him to the clubhouse after a long tirade directed at plate umpire Alan Porter.
Strasburg seemed distracted by the delay as he warmed up for the fourth, and the Mud Hens took advantage. Guillen led off with a line single to right, and after Ryan Strieby struck out swinging at an 81 mph curve, Frazier lined a double down the left-field line and Wells followed with an RBI single to left to tie the game at 2. All three balls were hit well.
“They showed they were an aggressive team the first couple of nights,'' Jewett said. “If you have any baseball knowledge, you look at the numbers he's put up, you realize he's not going to walk you, his stuff's phenomenal, I'd better get after it. They don't know how long he's going to pitch, and nobody wants to get embarrassed. By far it was the biggest test for him.''
Strasburg then settled down, striking out Dlugach looking at a 95 mph fastball over the inside corner and getting Scram on a liner to shortstop Pedro Lopez, who made a nifty diving catch to his right.
The Mud Hens went down in order in the fifth as Strasburg needed just eight pitches to retire the side.
“He pitched on the heels of me being out there too long,'' Jewett said. “I thought he did a nice job of that.''
Strasburg, who threw 92 pitches in his previous outing, was not very happy when he was pulled and neither was the crowd of 13,288, the second-largest in franchise history behind the 13,766 that turned out for his Triple-A debut on May 7. Most streamed for the exits when they realized he was through for the night.
“It was kind of a shock to me, I'm not going to lie,'' Strasburg said. “But he (pitching coach Greg Booker) has the final say. There's not much you can do. I don't want to create a big scene in the dugout. I want to keep those guys focused.''
Strasburg, who signed a $15.1 million, four-year contract with the Nationals, is expected to make one more start for the Chiefs before being promoted to Washington.
“That's part of the learning process,'' said Chiefs center fielder Pete Orr, who hit a solo homer in the first. “I thought he did great. At the big league level, he's not going to have his best stuff every night. He's going to have to learn how to pitch. That's what he did.''