- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2011

HARRISBURG, Pa. — On a normal night, Stephen Strasburg flinging 99 mph fastballs would draw the attention of the most disinterested minor league stadium.

But the rehabilitation tour of the Washington Nationals’ young ace hadn’t collided with a band of monkeys dressed as cowboys who rode dogs and herded goats in Metro Bank Park’s outfield.

Yes, cowboy monkeys.

But Strasburg didn’t so much as turn his head toward the sideshow on Thursday night, as he made the sixth and final start of his rehabilitation for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.

And after six innings of one-hit ball, Strasburg looked ready to return to Nationals Park on Sept. 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, one year and four days after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

“It felt like it was going to take forever, the first five or six months,” Strasburg said. “But I’ve still got to go out there and keep working hard.”

On Thursday night, the right-hander threw 71 pitches against the Portland Sea Dogs, the highest total of his rehabilitation.

His fastball hit 99 mph in the opening innings as he retired the first 15 men in a row. Ivan Rodriguez, in Harrisburg on a rehabilitation assignment as well, caught Strasburg. That fastball set up Portland leadoff man Ryan Khoury for a knee-buckling 79 mph curveball to make him look as if his bat missed the ball by four feet to start the game.

The sixth inning was a different matter, as Strasburg surrendered a double to open the inning. His velocity dipped, too, with the fastball sitting between 92 and 94 mph.

But the dips are to be expected as Strasburg continues building arm strength, referring previously to being at a stage similar to the middle of spring training.

“You will have some of those days where everything is working,” Strasburg said. “And you will have opposite ones.”

Strasburg also focused on his off-speed pitches. Over the last three innings, 15 of his 35 pitches were curveballs or changeups. Those included an 87-mph changeup for a strikeout in the sixth, his fourth of the night. All came swinging.

“I’m getting the movement that I got before,” Strasburg said. “I’m more consistent than I was. It’s good to have a few innings in the minor leagues to figure it out.”

The cowboy monkeys are a traveling act put on by a drawling, lapsed bullrider named Tim Lepard. Each monkey and dog has a stage name. Lepard kissed one monkey after Strasburg exited, during their multiple forays onto the field between innings.

Arm wrapped in ice packs, Strasburg joked about the monkeys who stole the sellout crowd’s attention. The pitcher looked relaxed, even relieved, his monthlong sojourn through the minor leagues was over.

The next step is almost here.