Stephen Strasburg debuts for Nationals, with the baseball world watching

The Washington Post's Tom Boswell and Dave Sheinin preview Tuesday night's highly-anticipated debut of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg at Nationals Park.
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It has been building since the day the Washington Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick of the 2009 draft almost exactly a year ago. What would he look like on the mound at Nationals Park, with the stands jam-packed, the night abuzz with anticipation?

"It's something I've dreamed about my whole life," Strasburg said five days ago after his final minor league start. "And now it's going to become a reality."

On Tuesday night, as Strasburg, 21, makes his long-awaited debut for the Nationals, and the nation's capital, for once, will be the center of the baseball universe. The anticipation surrounding the event only intensified Monday evening, when the Nationals selected power-hitting prodigy Bryce Harper, 17, with the No. 1 pick in the baseball draft.

Tuesday night's game sold out within hours of the Nationals' announcement that Strasburg would start it -- although the team took the unprecedented step Monday of selling extra standing-room-only tickets and individual suite seats. Requests for media credentials approached League Championship Series levels. ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" will broadcast from within Nationals Park.

All for a pitcher whose most significant baseball achievement to this point, relative to the level of competition, was winning four games for the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs over the past four weeks.

But if the hype and the anticipation have been building around Washington and beyond over Strasburg's debut, something has been building within Strasburg himself, as well.

"This kid is hungry to go up there and be let go," said Ron Villone, a Chiefs teammate and a veteran of 15 big league seasons. "It's like a horse. He wants the reins to come off. It's building. He's getting motivated, more than ever. I see that hunger in his eyes."

The intensity builds

Over the course of his final weeks with Syracuse, as speculation about his debut began to swell, Strasburg, an intense person to begin with, grew tighter and more irritable, often brushing past the hundreds of autograph seekers who gathered outside the stadium after games.

"I've talked about that stuff a million times," he told reporters when asked after his final start for Syracuse to summarize what he has learned in the minors. "I'm sure you can get it on the Internet somewhere."

The unusual way in which the Nationals telegraphed the date of Strasburg's debut -- announcing it a full week in advance, before the phenom had even made his final Syracuse start -- caught him off-guard, as he heard the news from friends and teammates who texted and called him to offer their congratulations. It also robbed him of one of a minor leaguer's most cherished memories.

"Typically, you get the call the night before they go up there [to the majors]. The situation here is a little bit different," he said. "So that's one side I've missed out on: that total shock and surprise."

When he showed up in Harrisburg, Pa., to join the Class AA Senators two months ago, Strasburg was so green he had to ask a teammate how to pack for a road trip.

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