Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 10, 2010

The Phenom Is Phenomenal

It is an electric night in the nation’s capital. Even on television, that much is obvious. Nationals Park is literally standing room only, the stands a sea of red and white. They are here to witness what they hope will be the beginning of the Strasburg Era. Twenty-one year old pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, having raced through a quick apprenticeship at AA Harrisburg and AAA Syracuse, is making his first major league start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. MLB is broadcasting the game nationally; not something one would typically expect for an early June contest between a visiting nine already eleven games under .500 and a home squad in last place in its division. But Strasburg is the most heavily hyped rookie in a generation, recipient of a record $15.1 million contract. On his lanky shoulders squarely rest the long-deferred hopes of Washington baseball fans.

Just after 7 p.m. Strasburg completes his warm-up tosses to Pudge Rodriguez, the veteran and future Hall of Famer who has rushed back from the disabled list, determined to be behind the plate for the phenom’s debut.

In the first his speed is electric, but there is some understandable evidence of nerves. Pirates’ leadoff man Andrew McCutchen takes two balls well out of the strike zone before hitting a hard liner right at the Nationals shortstop. Strasburg remains in search of the strike zone with the second hitter, going to a 3-1 count before inducing a grounder to first baseman Adam Dunn, who records the out unassisted. Then against former Nat Lastings Milledge Strasburg begins to find his rhythm. As seen from the centerfield camera, the motion on a curve ball is stunning. A pitch later a changeup completely fools Milledge, and Strasburg has his first major league strikeout.

With two out in the bottom of the frame 25-year old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman lines one into the right field seats, giving the Nats an early 1-0 lead. If Strasburg is to be the pitching face of the Washington franchise for years to come, all expectations are that Zimmerman will be the offensive star.

For the next two innings the full house sees the Stephen Strasburg of their dreams. With the speed gun hitting triple digits on a few pitches and phenomenal ball movement, he strikes out the side around a harmless single in the second, and then fans the first two batters on his way to a 1-2-3 third.

But in the fourth Strasburg faces the first jam of his major league career, as he surrenders singles to the first two batters. He induces a double play ball to the next hitter, but then right fielder Delwyn Young reaches down for a changeup and smacks just his third home run of the season. Suddenly the Pirates have claimed a 2-1 lead.

So Stephen Strasburg seems intent on getting a lot of firsts, both good and bad, out of the way. First strikeout, first hit given up, first side struck out, first home run surrendered; it’s all happened in just the first four innings.

After watching his teammates squander a rally opportunity in the bottom of the inning, Strasburg shakes off his fourth inning woes and returns to dominance with two more strikeouts in a 1-2-3 fifth. He manages to top that by striking out the side (without any intervening harmless single) in the top of the sixth. The crowd is on its feet and roaring as he walks to the dugout, having thrown 81 pitches, faced 21 batters and fanned 11.

Then in the last of the sixth, Ryan Zimmerman comes through again, as he singles to lead off. Clean-up hitter Adam Dunn follows with a massive home run to right, putting the Nationals back into the lead. When left fielder Josh Willingham follows with another homer, the TV announcers assume that Strasburg’s day is done. He is approaching his 90 pitch limit, and taking him out now gives him the chance for a victory in his first major league start.

But there is no one warming in the Nationals bullpen. Surely manager Jim Riggleman knows that the packed house wants the chance to salute the right hander who has shown tonight that despite his youth he has a pitching game that is fully mature.

So Strasburg comes out for the 7th. Still throwing 97-98 MPH, he fans Garrett Jones. Then he strikes out Young, who had touched him for the homer earlier. And then on his 94th pitch the gun again hits 100 MPH as he sends Andy LaRoche back to the bench. His work done, he heads back to the dugout with the roars of a packed ballpark ringing in his ears.

The line in his first game is stunning. Seven innings, 94 pitches, four hits, two runs, zero walks, and a phenomenal fourteen strikeouts. Make no mistake, the opponents this evening are the Pirates, not the Phillies or the Dodgers. But they are still major league hitters, and in fact Pittsburgh despite its dismal record is in the middle of the pack in terms of strikeouts.

As can sometimes happen, Strasburg’s individual performance seems to lift the entire team. The Nationals bullpen has been horrific lately, surrendering several late inning leads. But Tyler Clippard throws a 1-2-3 8th, fanning two, and then the closer Matt Capps records the Nats’ 17th strikeout of the night while sending the Pirates down in order to earn the save.

The full house, which remained pretty much of a full house even after Strasburg departed, leaves very happy. And in good news for the Nats, perhaps they leave with the idea of coming back.

Every outing will of course not be so magical. There will be nights when Strasburg will lack command. There will be days when he will be masterful but pitch without any run support. As with any young pitcher, the Nationals can only hope that he will prove durable as well as dominant. To that end, they have already made known that his rookie campaign will be limited to roughly 150 innings. He will almost certainly reach that limit and be shut down before the schedule approaches its conclusion.

But on this first night none of that matters. On this first grand night of 14 K’s, Stephen Strasburg has done the seemingly impossible. With every four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup and curve, the phenom has exceeded expectations. In so doing he has shown the delirious fans of the Nationals just how easily hype can turn into hope.

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Responses

  1. Excellent summary of the game. I’ve been following baseball for over 30 years, and the only thing that comes close to this is Dwight Gooden’s rookie season in 1984. But this is even bigger. Glad to see the manager let him come out for the seventh inning. I know we don’t want to burn this guy out, but if he isn’t struggling, and he isn’t well over a hundred pitches, let him pitch! Nice job, Bill


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