Strasburg shines in return from neck injury
Nationals prospect earns AFL-leading fourth win
PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg came back from having pain in his neck to being a pain in the neck, to the Peoria Saguaros.Making his first Arizona Fall League start in 12 days on Saturday, Strasburg hurled one-hit shutout ball through 3 2/3 innings to earn his league-high fourth win in the Phoenix Desert Dogs' 1-0 victory over Peoria at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Matt Angle's leadoff homer in the second was the only support Strasburg needed to run his record to 4-1 in his final start of the AFL's regular season. "It was a good day. My goal was just to go out there and pound it in the strike zone," Strasburg said. The Washington Nationals' magnetic No. 1 Draft choice walked two, struck out six and drilled 36 of his 64 pitches through the strike zone. He showed no ill effects from the stiff neck which, as a precaution, had him shelved since he'd pitched five innings of one-run ball on Nov. 2. With Saturday's outing, Strasburg's first professional venture figures to be a wrap. In five AFL regular-season starts, he allowed 15 hits and nine earned runs in 19 innings -- for an ERA of 4.26 -- with seven walks and 23 strikeouts. However, beyond his one ragged day -- giving up seven earned runs and eight hits in 2 2/3 innings to the Peoria Javelinas on Oct. 22 -- he went 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA. "I'm still trying to learn," he said. "It's been a good learning experience, a pretty low-pressure situation, but a good introduction to pro ball. "It's been pretty much what I wanted. A challenge, against guys who've been in Double-A and Triple-A ball." Strasburg's next appearance will likely come in next Saturday's AFL championship game, with the Desert Dogs having a four-game leg up on the Eastern Division title with five games to go. That assignment would represent a Mulligan for Strasburg's introduction to the nation. The AFL championship game will be broadcast on the MLB Network and streamed live on MLB.TV -- as was last weekend's Rising Stars game, which Strasburg had to skip due to the neck issue. It would also offer a do-over against the one team that treated him roughly -- the Javelinas are on the verge of clinching the Western Division title. The two walks notwithstanding, Strasburg was at his sharpest Saturday. Everything he threw appeared to be at the knees or lower. Not to say all those were called strikes. Part of Strasburg's first-time professional experience has been adjusting to the umpiring, which has been as challenging as he'd been told to expect. "The umpires here are also trying to make the Majors and are being evaluated, and what I'd heard," Strasburg said, "is that they don't get in trouble for calling a strike a ball, but do get in trouble if they call a ball a strike. "So you've got to be pretty fine. And pitch to contact. Then it's the batters' job to hit the ball." The only one who hit it safely on Saturday was Peoria (and Padres) center fielder Cedric Hunter, who ripped a double inside the right-field foul line with one out in the third. Strasburg flicked off that one threat with a pair of strikeouts around a two-out walk of Jose Vallejo. Strasburg had just completed essentially his first month as a professional pitcher, and was caught off guard by one question: How has pitching with a hefty bank account been different? The tall right-hander gathered himself for an answer. "That never enters my mind," said Strasburg, the recipient of a $17 million five-year package from the Nationals. "At San Diego State, I was only concerned with trying to put the team on the map. "Now, I'm just trying to work as hard as I can to prepare to pitch in as high a level as the Nationals will want me. There will always be pressure no matter where you pitch. You always have to prove yourself and answer expectations. "I came here to try to adjust to the five-day routine, and I think I've done that. I wanted to reach the point of going out there and pitching with confidence. I was able to do that today."