SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Stephen Strasburg smiled at the question and was quick with an answer — no, he's not yet where he wants to be.
"Now that I've been able to make it to Triple-A, right below the big leagues, I really want to keep working harder," Strasburg said Wednesday night after throwing six innings of no-hit ball in his second start for the Syracuse Chiefs, a 4-0 victory over the Norfolk Tides. "I don't want to leave anything for chance. I want to earn a spot up there some day."
"Up there" is with the Washington Nationals, who made the 21-year-old sensation the top pick of the 2009 draft. At this rate, it shouldn't be long.
Strasburg threw 79 pitches, 55 for strikes, struck out seven, and walked one in facing 19 Norfolk batters, one over the minimum, before departing without allowing a hit. In two International League starts since Friday, he has struck out 13 and allowed one hit in 12 innings.
"It's nice to have some success so far in your first year," Strasburg said. "But you can't take anything for granted. You've got to keep working out there because this game is going to humble you in a second."
Strasburg's biggest challenge on a chilly night when he didn't get to bat because of the designated hitter rule might have been pitching his final inning after the Chiefs scored four runs during a rally in the bottom of the fifth that took nearly a half hour.
"He had to work harder to get his stuff than he did last game, but it came," Chiefs manager Trent Jewett said. "I thought the big hurdle was when we had the long inning in the fifth to go back out for the sixth and hold them at bay. A lot of times, especially in the cold weather, that's a difficult challenge."
Strasburg wasn't on a strict pitch count, but on a chilly night the Chiefs felt no reason to push the prize of the Nationals' franchise beyond six innings.
He went to three-ball counts on just four batters and lowered his earned-run average to 1.06 in seven minor-league starts. He finished his impressive stint by getting leadoff hitter Joey Gathright to swing futilely at an 81 mph curve on an 0-2 delivery.
"It was everything everyone said it would be, it was tough," Tides catcher Adam Donachie said. "He's got command of every pitch. You can't go up there just looking for one pitch. You can sit on one pitch, but he can mix it up pretty well. There's nothing more you can say about him."
In the first inning, Strasburg threw 15 pitches, 10 for strikes. He issued a two-out walk to Jeff Salazar on a 95 mph fastball but got lefty-swinging Josh Bell on a soft flyout to left to end the inning.
Tides second baseman Scott Moore was Strasburg's first strikeout victim, unable to react to an 81 mph curveball on a 1-2 offering in the second. Strasburg then induced both shortstop Robert Andino and first baseman Michael Aubrey to ground out to first — Aubrey on a 97 mph fastball on a 3-0 pitch – to end the inning.
Norfolk right fielder Blake Davis led off the third by hitting a hard one-hopper on an 0-2 pitch that glanced off shortstop Pedro Lopez's glove for an error. Davis was then caught stealing and Strasburg struck out Donachie looking at an 80 mph curveball and Gathright looking at a 98 mph fastball over the inside corner.
Strasburg retired the side in order in the top of the fourth on 16 pitches, getting his fourth strikeout when Salazar could only wave at an 83 mph curve.
The Tides went down in order again in the fifth as Strasburg registered two more strikeouts. Moore went down on three pitches, the last a 95 mph fastball across the middle of the plate, and Aubrey was caught looking at an 82 mph curve.
"He's comfortable with taking on information and putting it into his game," Jewett said. "Obviously, there's a huge amount of talent there, but he did exactly what the pitching guys asked him to do. It was great work. You just don't see changeups like that very often. The fact that he understands it, trusts it … is really mature."
A franchise-record crowd of 13,777 turned out for Strasburg's debut on Friday night, but despite clear skies and a gametime temperature around 50 degrees, only 6,702 fans came out Wednesday night.
The Nationals are expected to keep Strasburg in the minors until early next month. Strasburg, who starred at San Diego State, signed a $15.1 million, four-year contract, a record for an amateur player, with Washington last August.
"I know they have a plan for me," he said. "I'm still hungry. I'm starting to smell it a little bit. Hopefully, I can get there soon. I don't want to be in Triple-A the rest of my career."
That shouldn't be a problem.