Mets get set for Strasburg with win

WASHINGTON -- The Buffalo Bisons, the top affiliate of the New York Mets, mustered only three hits in five innings against Stephen Strasburg on June 3.

"We called up all the guys who got hits off him," David Wright quipped.

Funny. Nearly true, too.

Current big leaguers Ruben Tejada and Jesus Feliciano accounted for two of the three hits -- Mike Cervenak had the other -- in Strasburg's final minor league start. In fact, Feliciano was the last batter Strasburg faced as a minor leaguer.

They reunite Saturday, when the Mets face Strasburg in Game 3 of the four-game weekend series against the Washington Nationals.

The Mets will enter the spectacle on a high note, too.

Rookie left-hander Jon Niese took a scoreless effort into his seventh and final inning and Alex Cora contributed a three-run triple as the Mets beat the Nationals, 5-3, on Friday night.

The game ended with Tejada calling for a pickoff play at second base and closer Francisco Rodriguez spinning and throwing a strike to retire Roger Bernadina, depriving Willie Harris of a chance to bat with the tying runs on base.

The lone damage against Niese during a 117-pitch effort came on a leadoff homer by Josh Willingham in the left-hander's final inning. Niese, who set a career high with eight strikeouts, was coming off an outing in which he tossed six scoreless innings against the Minnesota Twins. He improved to 5-0 since returning from the disabled list. Niese also produced his first career extra-base hit and RBI, when he followed Cora's bases-clearing triple with a double that chased Nats starter Luis Atilano in the fourth inning.

The Mets' pregame focus had little to do with Strasburg -- actually, it seemed concentrated on the Ghana-Uruguay World Cup match -- but all regular-season games are not created equal, even if they count the same.

Rookie Josh Thole draws the double whammy of being asked to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey while facing the flame-throwing Strasburg. Thole caught Dickey at Buffalo, where they both opened the season, but he did not face Strasburg when the Bisons faced Syracuse a month ago. Thole was confined to the Bisons' dugout that day because he was whacked in the head with a backswing the previous day.

"Fun," Thole labeled his Saturday dual challenge. "It will be interesting. I caught Dickey's pen just to get comfortable with it. I played catch with him today. And you get Strasburg. It's one of them days. It's like anything, you just go out and try to get your hits and hopefully catch a good game."

Said Tejada: "His fastball is like 98 mph. A good curveball. Everything for a strike, you know? But I'll be ready for tomorrow."

Strasburg is being highly protected by the Nationals, with no media interaction other than after his starts. That's not unprecedented, though. Mets VP Jay Horwitz recalled shielding Dwight Gooden from the media except for after starts for the first season of Doc's major league career -- although it's worth noting that Gooden debuted at 19, less than two years after being drafted out of high school. Strasburg is college-groomed and turns 22 later this month.

"I can't really place too high of expectations on myself when I go out there," Strasburg said after his last start, when the Nationals failed to score a run for him for the second straight time and he dropped to 2-2 in five major league outings. "I understand I'm not going to have lights-out stuff every time out. I'm human. ... I've just got to remind myself what the goal is and what the team needs me to do. The team needs me to go out and keep the team within striking distance. There's going to be games where we end up not scoring runs, but the first two outings we scored a ton of runs."

Strasburg expressed regret for ceasing to throw his curveball early in a 5-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Monday because the pitch wasn't sharp. Even without his full arsenal, the phenom took a scoreless effort into the seventh inning. And the zeroes may have continued that day had shortstop Ian Desmond not committed an error.

"Next time around, if my pitches aren't working at the start of the game, I'm going to have to stick with them a little bit more because I'm going to need them," Strasburg said. "I can't just eliminate one pitch because it's not working early on and not throw it at all the rest of the game -- because I was pretty much only throwing two pitches up there against them, and they're going to figure you out pretty quick if you're only throwing two pitches. ... When you have those type of outings, when your stuff's not there, the top pitchers in the league, they're going to get through it. For the most part, I thought I did well enough, kept the team in the ballgame."

Mets third-base coach Chip Hale wondered if the shadows from a 4:10 p.m. start might make it more difficult to pick up Strasburg's pitches, but apparently the issue with shadows between the mound and plate is not as bad in the summer at Nationals Park as it is in April. Of course, there isn't much of a track record for dealing with late-afternoon shadows at the stadium. Until Strasburg was promoted, Saturday national TV never involved the Nats.

Ike Davis faced Strasburg in the Arizona Fall League, in a rare game in which Strasburg actually looked mortal. The Mets' rookie first baseman -- who went 0-for-2 with a lineout to second base in the AFL against Strasburg -- offered hefty praise. Still, Davis noted, trying to inject some realism amid the hype: "He wasn't some mythical beast" -- just a pitcher with a harder fastball and sharper pitches than the norm.

"When you face aces, a guy like [Roy] Halladay or a guy like [Tim] Lincecum, there's a good chance that you might not get a hit that day," Davis opined. "But you go in there, you fight and you see what happens."

Mets manager Jerry Manuel, asked if he could recall hype like Strasburg's, reached back to the late 1970s for his response.

"Mark Fidrych didn't have this much interest, but he created that type of interest," Manuel said. "The Bird. He had the whole city of Detroit. Friday night, whooo. People had bird outfits on. They had bird hairdos, because he had these curly locks all over the place. And he was one of the characters of baseball, a tremendous man."

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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