Stephen Strasburg makes spring training debut for Washington Nationals

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; D01

VIERA, FLA. -- The crowd had swelled to about 200 in the right field corner of Space Coast Stadium, the location of the Washington Nationals' bullpen. Shortly after the public address announcer introduced the starting pitcher stretching in center field -- "none other than No. 37, Stephen Strasburg!" -- the mob grew by one: none other than perhaps the greatest catcher of his generation.

"Yo, Pudge!" one of the fans leaning on a railing yelled. Wearing a navy sweat suit, Iván Rodríguez had snuck into the bullpen to watch Strasburg warm up, reduced to the same status as everyone else here -- a spectator with a ravenous curiosity for what Strasburg would do in his spring training debut, his first start against major league batters.

Strasburg's unveiling against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday meant more to him than the shimmering results -- no runs, two innocuous singles, two strikeouts, 27 pitches, 15 strikes, plenty of high-90s radar readings. Mostly, he was happy the day had come and gone, hopeful that the "craziness" around him may dissipate. While it lasted, he savored his escape to the one public place reporters and autograph-seekers can't disturb him. He got to stand at the center of a baseball diamond.

"Pick your favorite place in the world," said Kathy Swett, Strasburg's mother. "That's where he feels most comfortable. Just playing."

"A lot of anticipation," Strasburg said. "It's all over with. It's in the books."

Before Strasburg threw his first warm-up pitch, the crowd hovering in the bleachers above, pitching coach Steve McCatty sidled next to him. "Is your wife at the game?" McCatty asked. "Because everybody else is." Strasburg chuckled and continued his routine.

After the national anthem, Strasburg's catcher, Wil Nieves, walked to the mound with him. "You see all these people who came to see me?" Nieves asked. Strasburg laughed.

Once Austin Jackson dug into the batter's box, Strasburg stood with his body square to the hitter, his glove concealing everything but his eyes and the straight brim of his cap. Strasburg began with two fastballs, both 97 mph and outside for balls. By the end of his day, he would fall behind six of the eight batters he faced. Adrenaline was the culprit.

"It's always that first outing," Strasburg said. "It's always the excitement."

Down 2-0 to Jackson, Strasburg threw another fastball, which Jackson grounded to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He navigated the first inning in seven pitches, all of them fastballs between 96 and 98, which his catcher would later verify. "I was peeking," Nieves said.

Strasburg began the second against Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers slugger who a day earlier had said, "Let's see what he's got." Strasburg showed him two 97-mph fastballs and then his first two curveballs to make the count 2-2.

Strasburg reared back and threw a fastball. "I was just giving it everything I had," he said later. Cabrera flailed, way late. Nieves said it was the only four-seam fastball Strasburg threw and figured it must have been 99 mph, maybe 100. The radar showed 51. "Probably," Nieves said, "the gun was all crazy."

Once Carlos Guillén grounded the first pitch he saw to third, Strasburg had retired the first five batters with 13 pitches. And then he found trouble. Don Kelly, a third baseman, flared a 2-2 fastball to left. Alex Avila followed with a chopper through the middle.

Strasburg was close to blemishing his first outing with a run. From the stretch, he threw Brent Dlugach three straight balls. Two strikes, 3-2. Nieves called for a curveball. Strasburg nodded.

"I started praying he could throwing it for a strike," Nieves said.

As the runners bolted, Strasburg twirled a curveball down the middle. Dlugach froze. Home plate umpire Paul Nauert punched the air. Strike three, inning over.

"He really showed me a lot when he threw the 3-2 curveball," Nationals pitcher Liván Hernández said.

Strasburg retreated back to the bullpen and threw a dozen pitches in order to reach his full allotment. The start that earned Internet monikers befitting a D.C. snowstorm -- "Strasburgeddon" topped the list -- had ended. He had thrown dominating heat, faced some adversity, and come out unscathed.

"Everything that you would want to have happen, happened," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said.

Across the country, Swett watched the game on television and wished the announcers would spend more time talking about someone besides her son. "If I was another player's parent I'd be a little upset," she said in a telephone interview.

Strasburg's final chore was a 10-minute news conference in the clubhouse. Once he finished speaking with the media, he walked back out to the dugout. McCatty noticed him on the bench.

"You're done," McCatty said. "You can go if you want."

"No," Strasburg said. "I just want to sit here."

Strasburg watched the final innings -- the Nationals lost, 9-4 -- from the dugout. He dressed in jeans and a striped sweater in the clubhouse and started responding to the 20 text messages on his cellphone. On the drive home, Strasburg called his mother. She told him she was proud of him.

"I know it was not easy for him," Swett said. "He just wants to play baseball."

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