SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Even when he's not at his best, Stephen Strasburg makes his bosses smile.
Strasburg faced adversity for the first time in his brief Triple-A career on Monday night, and team president Stan Kasten was impressed with the way the young right-hander handled it. Strasburg made adjustments to improve his curveball and changeup, limited the damage against the Toledo Mud Hens to two runs and showed his competitive side when he balked at being removed after five innings and 52 pitches.
"All successful pitchers overcome the challenges and the rough spots," said Kasten, who attended the game. "Like every other pitcher in history, he's going to have his, and I suspect he's also going to do a great job getting through it."
Strasburg, the No. 1 prospect in the Minor Leagues, took a no-decision on Monday in the Chiefs' 6-3 win over the Mud Hens before 13,288 fans at Alliance Bank Stadium. In five innings, he allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits with no walks and five strikeouts.
In his first three Triple-A starts, Strasburg had allowed only four hits -- all singles -- and no runs in 18 1/3 innings, with four walks and 22 strikeouts. He had held Triple-A hitters to a .068 batting average (4-for-59).
But Strasburg's curveball and changeup were missing their spots on Monday, and he couldn't get his two-seam fastball to do its usual dipping and diving.
The result? Strasburg surrendered more hits over five than he had in his previous 18 1/3 Triple-A innings. He allowed one run in the third inning, on Deik Scram's leadoff triple and a passed ball, and he yielded two singles and a double to the first four hitters he faced in the fourth inning.
But Strasburg caught Brent Dlugach looking at a 95-mph fastball for the second out of the fourth, and Chiefs shortstop Pedro Lopez made a diving catch of Scram's line drive to end Strasburg's worst inning in Syracuse.
"As a competitor, you want to be put in those situations. See what you're made of," Strasburg said. "I definitely learned a bit here."
Strasburg downplayed the idea that his concentration was affected by an argument that started in the bottom of the third inning and delayed the top of the fourth. Home-plate umpire Alan Porter ejected Chiefs outfielder Kevin Mench for tossing his bat in disgust after a called third strike to end the inning, then tossed manager Trent Jewett.
"All in all, it was a positive inning on the heels of me being out there too long [arguing with Porter]," Jewett said. "But there are 23 other guys on this ballclub, and I had to protect one of them."
Strasburg appeared to be upset when he entered the dugout after the fifth inning and pitching coach Greg Booker told him he was finished for the night. Strasburg tossed only 52 pitches (36 for strikes) -- his second-lowest total in his nine Minor League starts this season.
The Nationals are being cautious with Strasburg, limiting his innings and pitch counts so he can save his arm for the last four months of the Major League season.
"It doesn't matter where I'm at. If I'm in some sandlot with no fans watching, I'm not going to want to be taken out of the game," Strasburg said. "I'm a competitor, I want to stay in there and I want to make that big pitch to get out of a jam."
Strasburg faced a Toledo lineup that included five former Major Leaguers, including Detroit Tigers veteran Carlos Guillen, who's with the Mud Hens on an injury rehab assignment. Toledo entered the game ranked ninth in the 14-team International League with a .254 average, and eighth in runs scored (4.3 per game).
Casper Wells, who drove in the only earned run off Strasburg with a fourth-inning single, clubbed a grand slam off Strasburg in the Arizona Fall League last fall. Some of Wells' teammates playfully shouted "Strasburg killer" while Wells was being interviewed after the game.
"He throws a lot of strikes, and I try to be aggressive with it," Wells said. "He's really effective when he throws the ball down in the zone, and the balls we hit were a little up in the zone. But he's a good pitcher, and he's going to have a lot of success at the Major League level."
After retiring six of the seven batters he faced in the first two innings, Strasburg ran into trouble in the third. Scram opened the inning with a ground-ball triple that bounced over first base and rolled into the right-field corner.
Strasburg retired the next two hitters, but a curveball to Scott Sizemore broke outside, and catcher Devin Ivany couldn't grab it, allowing Scram to score the unearned run. Ivany caught Strasburg for the first time on Monday because the Chiefs' starting catcher, Carlos Maldonado, was promoted to Washington to replace the injured Ivan Rodriguez.
Strasburg surrendered three hits to the first four batters he faced in the fourth inning. Guillen led off with a single, Jeff Frazier doubled to left field with one out and Wells grounded a single into left field to score Guillen.
Even with Monday's so-so outing, Strasburg is 3-0 with a 0.39 ERA in 23 1/3 Triple-A innings. In his nine Minor League starts, including four at Double-A Harrisburg, the first pick in last year's Draft is 6-1 with a 0.99 ERA, with 10 walks and 54 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings.
Strasburg is expected to make one more start for Syracuse, on Saturday, and then start for the Nationals during a homestand that starts on June 4. But the Nationals do need a pitcher for Saturday, and they're playing in San Diego, where Strasburg grew up and played college ball at San Diego State.
"My lifelong goal is to pitch in the big leagues," Strasburg said. "To be given that opportunity, wherever it is, if it's all the way across the world, that's fine. I just want to pitch in the big leagues."
And when he gets there, Strasburg will have his days like Monday, when everything isn't perfect. And now the Nationals have a better idea of how he'll handle it.
"He'll have more bumps along the way," Kasten said, "and I know he'll come through those as well."
Matt Michael is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.