- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Every few minutes, gusts of warm wind picked up bits of peanut shells and sunflower seeds and swirled them around Municipal Stadium’s half-full stands.

Even Stephen Strasburg wasn’t enough to fill each green plastic seat Monday night.

The circus-like atmosphere surrounding the right-hander’s rehabilitation has dissipated. Only a few red No. 37 jerseys dotted the crowd. There weren’t dozens of media on hand. A small line of fans waited to enter the stadium an hour-and-a-half before the game as much for the commemorative Bryce Harper trading card as a glimpse of the Washington Nationals’ young ace.

“It seems like Hagerstown is getting used to me being here,” Strasburg said, then laughed in front of a few television cameras. “It’s probably about time to move on.”

But making his third start for the Class-A Hagerstown Suns and fourth start of his return from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg took a significant step Monday. The pitcher looked like himself on the mound. And after last week’s forgettable 1 2/3 innings in Hagerstown, that meant more than how many people dodged floating peanut shells and sunflower seeds to watch.

In three innings, Strasburg’s fastball sat between 96 and 98 mph. Yes, there were hiccups, such as a hit batter and walk. But he limited the Hickory Crawdads to two weak hits - one came when the shortstop dropped a slow grounder - and struck out six.

That was a marked change from last week’s outing, when Strasburg’s pitches were smacked around Municipal Stadium for four hits to accompany two walks and five earned runs. Twenty-five pitches were thrown before the first out.

Monday’s beginning was shaky, too. Strasburg’s third pitch plunked 18-year-old Jurickson Profar, one of the top shortstop prospects in the minor leagues.

One out later, a single up the middle scored Profar and the next man walked.

The pitcher admitted too much adrenaline coursed through him in the inning. He’s trying to control it, trying to relax.

That worked, as Strasburg settled down to retire eight of the next 10 batters. The location on his pitches improved, even with a strike zone that seemed smaller than the topping-free concession stand hamburgers.

“There are little glimpses that come back,” Strasburg said, “whether it’s a hitter or two or an inning.”

Scheduled to throw four innings or 65 pitches, Strasburg finished at 60 pitches. He called that a “piece of cake” but wished he strung out the pitches over four or five innings.

Strasburg’s next start will come Saturday, likely at Triple-A Syracuse. Facing batters with more advanced approaches at the plate is enticing. Setting up hitters at the Class A level is nearly impossible, with wildly divergent approaches at the plate from youngsters amped up to face a big-league arm.

The next start also will provide an opportunity to regain the feel and consistency with his curveball.

“All my other pitches are better than they were before,” Strasburg said.

But the curveball lagged behind, as is normal with pitchers rebuilding arm strength after Tommy John surgery. The pitch wasn’t sharp in the first inning Monday. But when Strasburg relaxed, the break tightened and, for a minute, you could imagine they were curveballs from before his right elbow exploded.

“I trusted the break,” Strasburg said, “rather than going out trying to throw the filthiest breaking ball ever.”

Long after Strasburg walked off the mound, he talked about how long he ices his shoulder and detailed exercises to keep his muscles “confused.” He was relaxed. Almost chatty, speaking with the assurance that his days of pitching in half-full stadiums are dwindling.

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