SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As Hurricane Irene buffeted the Eastern Seaboard Saturday night, Stephen Strasburg stood under a sky streaked with pink from the setting sun.
The storm felt far away at Alliance Bank Stadium. So did the tumult of Strasburg's past year, which included surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow.
Instead, the young right-hander flashed his old dominance. Five perfect innings for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs before back-to-back singles ended his night. All seven strikeouts came swinging. Curveballs looped from the letters on hitters' jerseys to the dirt. His fastball reached the mid-90s.
And Strasburg's old dominance was joined by his old swagger. How did his arm feel?
"I'm going to let the numbers do the talking," Strasburg said.
And he said: "I wasn't surprised. I've done it before. If it feels good, that's the bottom line."
Under the worn brown table in front of Strasburg for his news conference, his right hand gripped his left thumb and fidgeted as he matter-of-factly answered questions for 8 minutes, 26 seconds.
After four rehabilitation starts for Class A Hagerstown and Potomac, Saturday's 64-pitch outing was an opportunity for Strasburg to test himself against hitters with a more advanced approach.
Turns out there wasn't much of a test.
"The difference between him and other hard throwers is he has location," Rochester's Dustin Martin said. "He puts it wherever he wants to, and he has plus-plus off-speed stuff. Obviously, he's one of the best right-handers out there."
Perhaps the biggest challenge came from Rochester's Jeff Bailey, who appeared with the Red Sox in parts of three seasons and was the 2008 International League most valuable player. In the second inning, Bailey fouled off seven Strasburg pitches before striking out swinging.
This was Strasburg's longest outing of his rehabilitation by two innings or, according to pitch count, by four pitches. He appeared to tire in the sixth, throwing six pitches to two batters before Syracuse manager Randy Knorr pulled him.
Rebuilding arm strength takes time, to go deeper in games and be able to snap off curveballs like he did before the injury.
Strasburg feels like he's midway through spring training. He expects that feeling to continue the rest of the season.
No, he doesn't know where he'll pitch for his next turn Sept. 1. The likely spot is Double-A Harrisburg, allowing Strasburg one final minor league outing with a pitch count in the 70 to 80 range. Then, barring setbacks, he could return to the Washington Nationals on Sept. 6 and make his first three starts at home.
The night in Syracuse seemed workmanlike. Sure, the billboard outside flashed Strasburg's name. But the stadium was three-quarters full, with a near-vacant upper deck. And the autograph-hungry mobs that crowded near clubhouses after Strasburg's starts for Hagerstown and Potomac were absent.
Instead, one middle-aged man wearing a red cap waited in the dark. His right hand clutched a bright white baseball and a pen. A breeze picked up, blowing the remnants of Irene closer. The billboard flashed for an empty parking lot. Strasburg was nowhere to be found, but the man didn't move.
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