HARRISBURG, Pa. - A record-setting crowd of 8,637 that packed Metro Bank Park was awed by another impressive performance by Stephen Strasburg, who thinks he's ready to face major league hitters a little more than one year since he underwent Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery.
Strasburg didn't disappoint the packed house, allowing one hit over six innings and striking out four in his sixth minor league rehabilitation start. The Double-A Harrisburg Senators clinched first place in the Eastern League's Western Division with a 10-0 rout of the Portland Sea Dogs, a Boston farm club Thursday night.
But seconds after expressing an affinity for the other featured entertainment of the evening - dog-riding monkeys who herded sheep through the outfield to the raucous delight of the overflow crowd - Strasburg sounded like a man who had merely taken another step in the recovery process, not an amped-up pitcher eager to close out the minor league portion of his recovery so he could again attack major league hitters.
"Normal (recovery) time is 12 to 18 months," said Strasburg, who threw 53 of his 70 pitches for strikes and allowed only two baserunners. "When you do get past the 18 months, you're still working. That's how it's going to be for a while. That's what I've learned through this process (and) I'm going to keep for the rest of my career. Hopefully, it's going to keep me healthy for the rest of my career."
If Thursday's outing was any indication, when he resumes throwing in anger wearing a Nationals uniform Tuesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, fans will see a Strasburg similar to the flamethrower who captured a city's attention last season, when the top overall pick from the 2009 First-Year Player Draft took the nation's capital by storm. They might not see him for more than half a game or so, but they'll see him.
The fastball's still there - it topped out at 99 mph Thursday before settling into the 94-95 mph range over his final couple of innings. The tantalizing curveball he's been working on in his last couple of rehab starts is a fine complement - Sea Dogs hitters were powerless, flailing at the 79 mph curve after being set up with hard stuff. The slider not only has bite, but movement, so left-handed hitters, in particular, should be on notice.
The right-hander was nothing if not efficient for the Senators on Thursday, throwing first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 20 hitters he faced. (Ivan Rodriguez threw out a runner hit by a pitch, meaning Dan Butler to end the fifth and start the sixth innings.)
Strasburg, who never speaks in the plaudits others heap upon him, acknowledged he was "pretty happy" with the outing. But he cautioned that he remains in recovery mode, a work in progress.
"I think the work isn't done," he said. "I need to keep on grinding, finish the season strong here, go into the offseason healthy and see what kind of pitcher I am in 2012. I'm still learning a lot out there. I'm learning how to have the right routine to go out there and feel fresh every day. I think I'm starting to realize that I don't need to go up there and dial it up every time to get guys out."
He'll be on a strict pitch count when he returns to D.C. on Tuesday - general manager Mike Rizzo said before the game that Strasburg would be limited to 80 pitches or five innings - and Strasburg sounded relieved that his return is imminent.
"It felt like it was going to take forever, the first five or six months," he said. "Once I started throwing more, once I started facing hitters, it started to speed up. I kind of got back into normal swing of things being healthy. By no means do I think I'm done. I still got to go up there and keep working hard, doing everything that I've been doing to get to this point."
But thinking back to the days he spent pretty much alone at the Nationals' complex in Viera, Fla., where trainers not media hoards calculated his every movement, Strasburg realizes how far he's come in a relatively short time by baseball standards.
"It was a pretty tough experience early on," Strasburg said. "Once everybody left spring training, I really had to go out there and stay driven without anybody watching over me - besides the training staff, obviously. What really was going to determine how fast I would be able to get back was how hard I worked. Being in solitude down there in Florida, I really had to push myself. I think it's made me a better person and, hopefully, a better pitcher."