Behind improved curveball, Strasburg shines for Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — One frustration followed Stephen Strasburg’s barnstorming rehabilitation tour from Hagerstown, Md., to Woodbridge, Va.

Almost one year removed from Tommy John surgery, the feel for his curveball wasn’t the same.

Sure, his fastball and changeup felt better than before the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow was replaced. But breaking pitches are notorious for being the last pitch to return after arm surgery, as strength to snap off curveballs builds slowly.

But under a sky streaked with pink on Saturday night at Alliance Bank Stadium, Strasburg’s curveball began its return.

“It felt a lot better,” said Strasburg, after allowing two hits and one run while striking out seven in five-plus innings for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. “It’s still not getting the same kind of break that I look for. But there were flashes of it.”

Strasburg’s 64 pitches — including 47 strikes — weren’t perfect. But they kept the Rochester Red Wings off-balance. Experienced hitters looked foolish. And Strasburg, after four Class A rehabilitation starts, pitched like someone on the cusp of returning to the big leagues.

During his 12 starts with the Washington Nationals last season, Strasburg used curveballs 25.5 percent of the time. Paired with his fastball and changeup — Strasburg believes those are better than before his injury — the pitch is devastating.

Take Ray Chang, the 27-year-old just 34 games into his stint with Rochester. A curveball for a called strike started Chang’s ordeal in the fifth inning. Strasburg finished off Chang with another curveball, dropping it from the letters on his jersey to the dirt. Chang’s contorted swing looked as if it would corkscrew him into the ground.

“It’s a hit or miss pitch,” Strasburg said. “It’s going to be that way probably until the end of the year. It’s going to be the last pitch to come.”

Chang’s at-bat was typical of Strasburg’s night: He retired the first 15 batters. All seven strikeouts were swinging. Seven more outs came on ground balls. Just one ball left the infield in the five innings, the longest stint of Strasburg’s rehabilitation by two innings.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Strasburg said. “I’ve done it before.”

Trouble emerged in the sixth, when Strasburg appeared to tire and started the inning with back-to-back hits. Syracuse manager Randy Knorr promptly pulled him. The 64 pitches were a rehabilitation-high, after 60 last Monday and 49 in the start before.

The lone dose of uncertainty came about Strasburg’s next stop. Because of Hurricane Irene, he’s unsure of his travel plans, even when he’ll depart Syracuse.

But Strasburg is likely to get one more rehabilitation start — odds are Sept. 1 at Double-A Harrisburg — which would allow him to debut with the Nationals at home on Sept. 6.

But the only things Strasburg finalized on Saturday were better curveballs, one more dominant outing and another step toward Nationals Park.

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