There was a short line maybe twenty people deep outside of Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Maryland an hour before Stephen Strasburg's fourth rehab start tonight against the Hickory Crawdads, the Texas Rangers' Class-A affiliate. It was the 23-year-old '09 no.1 overall pick's third outing for the Hagerstown Suns, but there was nowhere near the same crowd or buzz that surrounded his first rehab start here a few weeks back.
1,200 to 1,500 fans filled the home of the Nats' low-A farm team. There was a small group of autograph seekers and photographers down the first base line watching as he warmed up in the pen outside the Suns' clubhouse, but not nearly as many as there were for his first start since undergoing Tommy John surgery late last year.
Some things stayed the same however. When the right-hander took the mound the now-familiar strains of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" filled the park, and his fastball lit the radar gun up with high 90's heaters, 96-98 according to most reports. The Nationals were holding Strasburg to 65 pitches or four innings pitched tonight, and a 27-pitch (16 strike) first in which he hit the first batter he faced with an 0-2 bender, walked another and surrendered a run while recording two K's had some in the crowd chattering about the fact that he didn't look sharp. "That's why he's still down here instead of where he should be," one woman said, apparently unaware of the plans the Nats have to work him slowly back into major league shape, but she couldn't be blamed for thinking as much based on what Strasburg showed early.
The second inning went a lot better for Strasburg, who got the first out with one pitch and then struck the next two batters out, one looking and one swinging with a curve and fastball, respectively. A 12-pitch frame had the Nats' starter at 39 pitches, 24 of them strikes after two innings pitched.
A long at bat to start the third and two errors on the Suns' shortstop saw the Crawdads push an unearned run across and run Strasburg's pitch count up to 60 before he'd completed the frame, adding two more K's for six total on the night, and he was done. It looked like work tonight for Strasburg, a little routine, which is probably how it should look. It's not about the stats in these starts, but about building toward an eventual return to the big leagues where he belongs. After a rough outing in his third start, the no.1 overall pick in the '09 Draft bounced back with a strong outing. 60 pitches, 40 strikes, 6 K's, 2 hits, 2 runs,1 earned and 4 steals allowed, 3 groundouts, one flyout and one step closer to returning to the majors.