Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg is worthy of neon billing

HAGERSTOWN, Md.

Stars are stars no matter where they work. The size of the venue isn’t important. It’s all about the status of the performer.

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Washington Nationals pitching ace Stephen Strasburg struck out four of the eight batters he faced Sunday in a rehab start at Class A Hagerstown. Strasburg, who had reconstructive elbow surgery last September, reached 98 mph on the radar gun. (Aug 7)

Washington Nationals pitching ace Stephen Strasburg struck out four of the eight batters he faced Sunday in a rehab start at Class A Hagerstown. Strasburg, who had reconstructive elbow surgery last September, reached 98 mph on the radar gun. (Aug 7)

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The sellout crowd at tiny Municipal Stadium understood. That’s why fans came Sunday afternoon to watch pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s first rehabilitation start for the Class A Hagerstown Suns. Media credential requests were double that of what the Suns received for the professional debut of touted prospect Bryce Harper.

Although marquee entertainers rarely visit these parts, Strasburg would have received spotlight treatment in many locations. The Washington Nationals’ most important player is worthy of neon billing.

That’s what the District’s No. 1 sports star commands.

Last season, Strasburg was more than simply an impressive rookie pitcher. He was an event in a big-event town.

Starting with his dazzling 14-strikeout debut in June, Strasburg was a happening. He was a must-watch athlete in a sport’s market lacking much buzz.

The right-hander provided what fans want most: A reason to cheer. An uncooperative ligament in his pitching elbow temporarily shut down the show, leading to the Hagerstown tour stop on Strasburg’s long road back from Tommy John surgery.

The record will show Strasburg gave up three hits — including a solo home run — while facing eight Greensboro (N.C.) Grasshoppers. Limited to 35 pitches or two innings by Washington’s medical staff, Strasburg worked into the second while throwing 25 strikes in 31 pitches.

Forget about those details. The statistical part of rehab starts isn’t important in the big picture.

Strasburg’s velocity and command, the keys to his star-power, were on display again in a pain-free performance. For Nationals management, that’s what it’s all about.

His fastball was clocked as high as 98 mph on radar guns. It was consistently in the 96-mph range.

Facing the first batter in the second, Strasburg broke off a sharp curveball for a called third strike, and he “knew the velocity was gonna be there just the way I was throwing” while rehabbing at the Nationals’ complex in Viera, Fla. “I was pretty happy with the command.”

The outing was fine for someone who had previously only pitched in simulated games. With the comfort of a controlled environment gone, Strasburg did enough to inspire confidence he’s close to rejoining the Nationals and resuming his role as the District’s Big Dog.

Attracting attention is Strasburg’s least favorite part of his job, “but I’m aware of it,” he said. “Not to be rude or anything, but it’s really not that important to me.

“My goal as an athlete is to go out there and win. It’s great that people come out and support me and stuff, and I really appreciate the fans . . . but bottom line, my job is to go out there and beat the other team.”

Capitals fans would argue Alex Ovechkin is second to none in production and style. The Wizards believe they have a rising superstar in John Wall and the Redskins have popular Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo.

None of them, though, are capable of captivating D.C. sports fans as much as Strasburg. Ovechkin, Wall and Orakpo don’t possess the potential to do as much as Strasburg could for the Nationals 30-plus times a season.

Strong starting pitching is the most important factor to success in baseball. Elite starters are paid accordingly, receiving contracts reflective of their standing in the game. If everything holds to form with Strasburg’s reconstructed elbow, he has the ability to set the standard for what’s expected of the best of the best athletes in the region.

On the strength of his individual accolades and the Capitals’ regular season achievements, Ovechkin is the most successful athlete. But Major League Baseball dwarfs the NHL in mass appeal.

There’s just no comparing the size of the fan bases of each league. This isn’t Montreal or Edmonton. It’s D.C.

Wall is an extremely talented point guard. If the Wizards make the right moves around him, they could become a playoff contender during the next few seasons.

Strasburg, however, is better at what he does than Wall is in his field. Strasburg has the stuff to win Cy Young awards.

The Redskins are D.C.’s most popular team. Orakpo is a rising young linebacker. And if he were a quarterback, Strasburg possibly would drop to No. 2 on the list.

Strasburg has made only 12 big-league starts. That’s a small work sampling to stir so much confidence in his present and future.

But in those starts, Strasburg proved there was reason for the hype. Totaling 92 strikeouts in 68 innings, Strasburg showed he was ready to shoulder a lot of the load. He went from minor league phenom to the Nationals’ foundation.

Where Strasburg goes from here will, in large part, help to determine if the Nationals finally become a consistent winner.

The moment he was injured, the franchise shifted its focus to 2012. Next season, with Strasburg expected back in the rotation from the start, Nationals officials envision the ballclub pulling closer to formidable Philadelphia in the National League East.

Strasburg will soon re-experience a fishbowl existence. He’s now on a fast track back to where his stardom skyrocketed. Once he returns to D.C., he’ll start out atop the list. And the Nationals are counting on him staying there.

 
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