Strasburg looks strong in final tune-up

Strasburg looks strong in final tune-up

BUFFALO -- The press room at Coca-Cola Field -- home of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons -- is barely ever utilized. But Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell made a rare appearance in it after Thursday's game, when he was called upon to speak solely about Stephen Strasburg, the 21-year-old who has drawn attention to Minor League Baseball like few ever have.

Right before Oberkfell sat down to field questions about the opposing starter -- and none about his team -- the Buffalo skipper uttered the same four words that are on many of the minds of Strasburg's teammates, opponents and fans every time he steps on a Minor League mound: "Why is he here?"

Stephen Strasburg

Say no more, skip. After yet another shutout outing, Strasburg is here no more.

The Nationals' No. 1 prospect made what will be his final start in the Minors for the Syracuse Chiefs on this Thursday afternoon, throwing five shutout innings while striking out five, walking one and giving up three hits.

Now, after signing a record $15.1 million contract as a draftee and exceeding what seemed like un-exceedable expectations through 11 Double-A and Triple-A outings, Strasburg can finally -- finally! -- shift his focus to being a Major League pitcher and helping the Nats win games.

Strasburg is next scheduled to pitch on Tuesday night at 7:05 ET against the Pirates at Nationals Park.

Said Chiefs general manager John Simone: "We'll shake his hand, tell him good luck -- and that we'll see him in 20 years in the Hall of Fame."

Simone was only half-joking, because the expectations that have been laid upon Strasburg have been that extraordinary.

The phenom with the golden right arm has always been unlike his professional teammates. He was hounded for autographs and needed for a long media session after his first workout with the Nats' Instructional League team. He has filled up usually empty Minor League stadiums at pretty much every stop this season. And after each start, he's fielded questions like nobody else on his club.

"I'm sure it's really annoying," said Chiefs right-hander Jeff Mandel, who's been with Strasburg throughout every step of his pro career -- from the Arizona Fall League, to Double-A Harrisburg, to Triple-A Syracuse.

"I remember the first couple of times when we were in the Fall League, and you've got grown men running around with big backpacks and just screaming his name at the top of their lungs. ... He thinks some people are just over the top. And he sees his stuff on eBay, and that [angers him] even more."

Strasburg finished his short-lived Minor League career 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA, including 65 strikeouts and 13 walks. Not bad for a right-hander who was in his junior year at San Diego State University at this time last year.

"It's been a pretty big adjustment from college," Strasburg said of his first 10 months as a pro. "There's a lot more that goes along with playing professional baseball and being in the position that I've been in. But it's been great. I've met a lot of great people along the way. I've learned a lot, and I'm excited to start learning up in the big leagues."

While some say Major League Baseball hasn't had a prospect like this in a while, it's a sure thing that what Strasburg brings has never really existed for the Syracuse Chiefs, who have previously been affiliated with the Mets, Yankees and Blue Jays, among others.

Before Strasburg, the 70-plus-year-old franchise hadn't seen a No. 1 overall pick play for them since former Yankee Ron Blomberg in the early 1970s.

"I think [Strasburg] really brought attention to Syracuse in a type of a season where, in April or May, you're trying to get people out [to the ballpark]," Simone, the 14-year Chiefs GM, said while watching Strasburg pitch in his team's uniform for the final time from Syracuse, N.Y.

"It wasn't just baseball fans. It was moms bringing their sons, older people who were coming to games for the first time, people traveling from outside of Syracuse. It was just something you don't normally see for a Minor League game anywhere."

Names like Roy Halladay, Deion Sanders, Carlos Delgado, George Bell, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry previously wore a Chiefs uniform. But, as Simone said, Strasburg "was kind of the tops of anybody."

Strasburg's last outing brought 14,774 fans to Coca-Cola Field -- the second-largest crowd of the season -- and provided a buzz never really experienced at the facility before.

Said Bisons director of public relations Brad Bisbing: "This is the great thing about Minor League Baseball: We get a chance to see the stars before they are stars."

But Strasburg -- despite all of his physical tools and equally impressive perspective -- isn't a star just yet, as the Nationals and Strasburg himself have tried to make clear.

His current manager, though, has been impressed with the way he's handled what has sometimes felt like unfair expectations.

"For a young man to be tugged in so many different directions from so many different types and from people outside of his immediate family and his immediate ballclub, for him to be able to filter those things at such a young age and from an experience standpoint and focus on preparation, competition, improvement, it's very unusual," Chiefs skipper Trent Jewett said. "Generally, guys have three, four, five, six years to figure those things out at the Minor League level. This guy is cramming it into a Spring Training and two months."

The cramming part is over now, though. The test is on its way, and it will come in the form of a Tuesday night start against the Pirates in front of what will likely be a sold-out crowd at Nationals Park.

"What more can you say?" Strasburg said. "It's something that I've dreamed about my entire life, and now it's starting to become a reality."

Is he ready, though?

"That's for you guys [the media] to decide," Strasburg said. "I feel like I've been ready."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.