Strasburg struggles, dazzles and wins in pro debut

The Nats' No. 1 pick pitched five innings in his first pro start, striking out eight while walking two and allowing just one earned run.
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010

ALTOONA, PA. -- Stephen Strasburg let loose his final warmup pitch Sunday afternoon, walked to the side of the pitcher's mound and took a deep breath. As the Harrisburg Senators' infielders whipped the ball around the horn, and a sellout crowd of 7,887 fans settled into their seats and the biggest media contingent ever to grace Blair County Ballpark looked on and awaited history, a scout behind home plate silently tilted his radar gun to show an observer the velocity of that final practice pitch: 96 mph.

The next pitch to leave Strasburg's hand was the first official one of his professional career. It clocked in at 99 mph, and the ball was quickly taken out of play and tossed into the Senators' dugout, where an official from Major League Baseball's licensing department put it into safe storage -- an artifact.

And just like that, the most scrutinized, most highly anticipated minor league career in many years -- if not in all of baseball history -- was underway.

Two hours 41 minutes later, closer Drew Storen applied the final touches to the Senators' 6-4 win over the Altoona Curve, and Strasburg, the Washington Nationals' precious gem of a prospect, had his first professional victory.

It was a performance that somehow both validated the Nationals' decision to send Strasburg to the Class AA Eastern League for the start of his professional career and underscored the reason he almost certainly will not be here for long, as Strasburg, a 21-year-old right-hander, alternated moments of sheer dominance with adrenaline-fueled missteps -- particularly in the first inning.

"You're facing a lot of guys you're going to be pitching against in the big leagues for years to come," Strasburg said. "As a player, you always like to say you're playing at the highest level possible, but right now there are things I need to improve on. I'm going to focus on that, and hopefully my day comes soon."

The final numbers -- five innings, four hits, four runs (only one of which was earned), two walks, eight strikeouts -- do an adequate job of telling the story of Strasburg's 82-pitch outing Sunday. He was just wild enough to get himself in trouble, just hittable enough to put his team in an early 4-0 hole, just unlucky enough to get burned by a pair of errors on his defense during a taxing fourth inning, yet overpowering enough to dial up a 99-mph heater or a knee-buckling 81-mph breaking ball whenever he needed them.

"When your mechanics are a little out of whack, the hardest thing to do is calm yourself down," he said, "because as a pitcher you feel like you're going super-slow when you're really not. I was trying to stay composed out there."

Strasburg also unleashed three years of pent-up frustration over not being allowed to hit in college -- Tony Gwynn, the Hall-of-Fame outfielder who coached Strasburg at San Diego State, denied his many entreaties -- by slashing a two-out, RBI double to the right field wall in his second at-bat, a crucial part of the three-run rally that put the Senators back in the game in the top of the fifth inning, and gave him a chance for the win.

"I'm definitely going to call Gwynn up and let him have it," Strasburg said. "I'm sure he's eating his words right now."

Tickets for Sunday's game started getting scarce and media requests started pouring in the moment the Nationals announced Strasburg's debut would take place on this date in this old railroad town of 47,176 in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania.

Although the Altoona Mirror, the local newspaper, deemed it just the third-biggest moment in the 11-year history of the Curve -- behind the franchise's being named the best in all of minor league baseball in 2006, but ahead of Dick Cheney's visit on July 4, 2004 -- the number of credentialed media members shot up from the six who covered the Curve's 1-0 win over the Senators on Saturday to 74 on Sunday. ESPN News showed the action live -- but only when Strasburg was pitching.

"Makes sense," said Rudy Owens, the opposing pitcher for the Curve, who actually out-pitched Strasburg for the first four innings. "Nobody cares about me."

If there are hurt feelings and resentment among the Senators for the attention lavished on Strasburg, who signed a record-setting $15.1 million contract with the Nationals last August, they hide it well. It also helps that Strasburg is humble by nature, sheepish toward the attention and quick to credit his teammates.

After the game, those teammates smothered him in handshakes and back-slaps. Manager Randy Knorr gave him one of the two official scorecards -- the MLB authenticators got the other one -- and the ball from his final out.

And then Strasburg showered, slipped on his jeans and headed to the parking lot where the team bus stood waiting. Next stop: Bowie, Md., 167 miles away. He may not be long for the minor league life, but for now it is the life he leads.

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