It was impossible not to compare this debut to the one he made on June 8, 2010 — which became known locally as “Strasmas” — when Strasburg, then 21, debuted at Nationals Park. That was the night he struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates, the game that redefined what a pitcher at the height of his powers could do, the performance that vaulted him from a phenom to a phenomenon.
On Tuesday night, Strasburg looked a little thinner and a little shaggier than the thick-legged, buzz-cut 21-year-old who dazzled all last summer. By all accounts, he is stronger through his core — the result of months of working out following his surgery, before he was allowed to resume throwing — and stronger mentally from the toll of his year-long rehabilitation.
“I’m still on a mission here,” he said. “I wanted to get stronger mentally and physically through this process. I didn’t waste a minute waiting for this moment to come, because I knew it was going to come sooner or later.”
Almost until the very moment Strasburg delivered his first pitch, the status of the game itself was in question, due to the slow-moving weather system over the region. It rained most of the day, and a rainout was enough of a possibility that Johnson informed Strasburg at his locker at 4 p.m. of contingency plans.
Strasburg emerged from the Nationals’ dugout at 6:37 p.m., just as the grounds crew was folding up the protective tarp that had covered the infield for much of the afternoon. The sky was a roiling mix of grays, and only a few thousand fans were inside the bowl of the stadium. Three Nationals public relations officials held back a dozen cameramen there to immortalize Strasburg’s first steps onto the field.
Up until that moment, no one — including the Nationals’ brain trust — knew definitively the answers to the pressing questions: Would there be a game? And if so, would Strasburg start it — or might they scratch him at the last minute over concerns about the field conditions?
Evidently, many who held tickets for Strasmas II harbored those doubts, or maybe they doubted if the Strasburg of 2011 could possibly approach the mastery of the Strasburg of 2010. But after the sky cleared and the phenom ascended the mound, those who had come to Nationals Park were glad they did.