WOODBRIDGE, Va. — To get to Stephen Strasburg, you had to pass through the baseball-and-Sharpie wielding mob clamoring outside the Potomac Nationals’ clubhouse, four Prince William County police officers and one thick blue door.
Chants of “We want Strasburg!” slipped through the whitewashed walls, into the space where reporters sat on the floor in front of seven television cameras. A 12-pack of Top Ramen perched on top of a beer-filled fridge. Taped to it was a sign that read: “Media stay out!”
Strasburg’s circus-like minor league rehabilitation tour stopped at Pfitzner Stadium on Friday night, the second start of his comeback from Tommy John surgery.
The new ligament in Strasburg’s right elbow appeared every bit as good as his old one. Over three innings, Strasburg threw 33 pitches, 24 for strikes, and struck out five. Even the two hits didn’t leave the infield. Potomac manager Matt LeCroy shook his head in amazement at Strasburg’s stuff and pronounced him ready for the big leagues.
“I know I’m going to be the pitcher I was,” Strasburg said. “I think the work I put in is going to make me better.”
The rust apparent in his first rehabilitation start with the Hagerstown Suns on Sunday disappeared. Instead, Strasburg’s fastball worked around 96 to 98 mph and topped out at 99 mph. And as planned, he worked in more off-speed pitches. He wanted to approach this as a normal game.
Imagine stepping to the plate as a member of the Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans on Friday night. If trying to put bat on that fastball wasn’t enough, Strasburg mixed in his big, biting curveball. The pitch was tighter than the previous start and looked as if it could buckle the knees of big leaguers.
“They say command is usually the issue with Tommy John,” LeCroy said, “but that don’t seem to be the issue with him.”
The stadium’s radar gun added to Strasburg’s legend, clocking his first-inning curveballs at an impossible — and inaccurate — 98 mph. That drew “oohs” from the 8,619 Strasburg-jersey clad fans crammed in the stadium with a capacity of 6,000.
A handful of changeups mixed in with the curveballs. Strasburg threw four in the third inning, none slower than 90 mph. A second radar gun confirmed the speed.
“You can’t hit it,” Potomac catcher Sandy Leon said. “That’s nasty.”
So efficient were Strasburg’s pitches, that he threw 17 more in the bullpen after LeCroy pulled him from the game. Strasburg was capped at 50 pitches, after throwing 31 in 1 2/3 innings at Hagerstown. Two police officers and a Nationals media relations official accompanied Strasburg down the right-field line, his off-field shadows all evening.
Strasburg is scheduled to make his next start Wednesday, barring any setbacks. No site has been announced. Since the Double-A Harrisburg Senators and Potomac are on the road then, another trip to Hagerstown appears likely.
“I’m a little bit more hungry to get back out there,” Strasburg said.
Then he disappeared into the clubhouse. Outside, the crowd hadn’t diminished. Every few minutes one police officer cracked the door and peeked out. “Stephen, Stephen!” came the cries. They wanted a signature. A glimpse. Anything.