SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Rehabbing Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg surfaced at Triple-A Syracuse on Saturday night hoping to challenge himself against hitters who would battle for quality at-bats.
It took him five innings, but that quest was fulfilled at Alliance Bank Stadium.
In the most dominating of his five minor league rehab games by far, Strasburg easily set down 15 straight Rochester Red Wings hitters through five innings before giving up two singles to open the sixth and then bowing out for the evening. Syracuse won 4-3.
The righty threw 64 pitches, 47 for strikes, and didn't reach a three-ball count on any hitter. He gave up one run, struck out seven batters, all swinging, induced seven groundouts and one flyout.
Strasburg, recovering from Tommy John surgery that ended his rookie season in 2010, topped out at 98 mph twice and consistently hit 96-97 mph on the generous stadium speed gun.
"It's a better test to see how your stuff compares,'' Strasburg said of moving up to the minors' highest step. "A lot of these guys have been in the big leagues. Their approach is as close as you get to big league guys. I went into the game focusing on good tempo, attacking the strike zone. The goal right now is to go out there, feel good, feel good the next day, and do it all again in five days.''
And how did he feel after Saturday's major step?
"Let the numbers do the talking,'' he said with a smile.
If Strasburg stays on schedule he would pitch again Thursday, although it's not clear where that will be. More immediately, Strasburg said he did not know when he will try to return to Hurricane Irene-battered Washington or where his next side throwing session will take place.
"It's going to be tough (to return Sunday),'' Strasburg said. "I'll see how it's going to be tomorrow.''
While Strasburg's arm was clearly regaining its power, he beamed about the improvement of his curve. He was aggressive in its use, attacking hitters with it early in counts
"It felt a lot better. I made some adjustments the last bullpen (session),'' he said. "I'm still not getting the break I was before, but there were flashes of it. It's a hit or miss pitch right now. It's the last pitch to come.''
Red Wings outfielder Dustin Martin, who faced Strasburg both last season in the minors and on Saturday, was most wowed about how Strasburg could pinpoint his repertoire.
"He throws really hard. The difference between him and other hard throwers is he has location,'' Martin said. "He puts it where he wants to.''
Of Strasburg's first four comeback efforts this month, three came with Single-A Hagerstown while one was with advanced Single-A Potomac. In 9 1/3 innings overall through those contests, he had an ERA of 6.75 and surrendered 11 hits.
"There's going to be good days and bad days. It's definitely a roller coaster,'' Strasburg said. "I realized that early on. You have to look at it one month at a time, instead of one day at a time. I have such high expectations for myself. It's hard to go out there and struggle. I just have to remember where I'm at in the learning process.''
He barely broke a sweat schooling Rochester, albeit the worst team in the International League. Before the pair of singles, the Red Wings' Jeff Bailey was the most combative batter of the evening. In the second, Bailey worked a 10-pitch at-bat off Strasburg, including seven foul balls, before fanning.
Other than that workout, Strasburg was a machine through five. He retired three hitters on a single pitch each, one on two offerings and three on three pitches.
Strasburg's perfect game was soiled when Rochester's Aaron Bates led off the sixth with a single to left on a 2-1 count. Steve Holm followed with another single, and Syracuse manager Randy Knorr came to get Strasburg, who was one pitch shy of his 65-pitch limit. He departed to an appreciative roar from the crowd of 9,678.
"I thought he did a great job. It was fun to watch,'' said Knorr, who managed Strasburg in Double-A Harrisburg last season. "He's still got a ways to go. He still doesn't have the zip he did. But from the time I've seen him until now, he's been pretty impressive.''
That was an apt description Saturday, yet one that Strasburg let rapidly pass in favor of the bigger picture.
"I wasn't surprised,'' Strasburg said of the results. "I've done it before. If it feels good, that's the bottom line. And it felt good again.''
Note: Watch Strasburg's outing on MASN/MASN HD now; it began at 10:35 p.m. Check MASN's listings for a rebroadcast of the game.
Lindsay Kramer covers baseball for the Syracuse Post-Standard