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Correction to This Article
The column about the Washington Nationals' newfound potential incorrectly said that D.C. baseball teams went to the World Series twice in 71 seasons. Washington was in the World Series three times: in 1924, 1925 and 1933.

With Stephen Strasburg, everything is finally possible for D.C. baseball

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The Washington Post's Tom Boswell and Dave Sheinin preview Tuesday night's highly-anticipated debut of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg at Nationals Park.

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By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Just sit back and enjoy this. Let it wash over you. The longer you've been a D.C. baseball fan, the more you deserve what's about to happen, starting on Tuesday night. Other towns demand a pennant. Since the end of World War II, Washington has just asked for a future. Not a promise, just a possibility. Now it's here.

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Whether you are in Nationals Park or watching on television when Stephen Strasburg makes his major league debut, you'll know you are seeing a landmark event. A city that went to only three World Series in 71 seasons, then lost two franchises and waited 33 years to get a team back, is reentering the baseball mainstream at last.

With a decent team on the field already and Strasburg about to assume the role of ace, Washington baseball, for the first time in the memory of even the oldest local fan, is serious.

Into this picture, add the image of 17-year-old Bryce Harper, picked No. 1 overall in the draft Monday and prize '09 rookie Jordan Zimmermann, now throwing 94 mph again after elbow surgery last summer.

"With good starting pitching, everything is possible," said Nats President Stan Kasten. "Without it, nothing is possible."

From the moment Strasburg throws his first pitch, probably a sinker close to 100 mph, everything will, finally, be possible for the Nats. Not quickly. Probably not this year, or even next season, though talk of a winning team in that time frame isn't foolish. But with their core of young pitchers, soon to be led by Strasburg, the Nationals finally have a foundation on which to build.

It's nice that the Nats can now name 10 pitchers who might be part of their '11 rotation, including Jason Marquis, Scott Olsen and even perhaps Chien-Ming Wang. But only Strasburg, perhaps with Zimmermann behind him, would constitute a true cornerstone.

Study stats and standings of the '00s. If you have an ace that pitches 210 innings with a top-10 ERA in your league, and you're also in a top 15 market so you can afford to put a team around him, you're usually going to win 85 or more games. That's where Nats owners should assume that, with appropriate payroll, they can go.

Nobody knows how Strasburg will pitch Tuesday night. In their debuts, Roger Clemens and Tim Lincecum got waxed for five runs and Dwight Gooden ran out of gas after five innings. But Ben McDonald, a No. 1 overall pick, had a four-hit shutout on only 85 pitches. His best all-around game ever may have been his first start.

Tuesday's game, though exciting, will prove little conclusively, but almost everybody in baseball assumes that they know what kind of pitcher Strasburg will become, whether it takes a month or a year.

Some gifts in certain sports translate to the next level. Nobody in the NBA asked whether Shaquille O'Neal would become a great center, just how dominant he'd be. When you have a 98-mph sinker and it's your third-best pitch, but your strongest suit is your control, then the broad outlines of the debate are settled.

What Jeezus does against big-league hitters will be a variation on what he's done to AA and AAA hitters in his 11 minor league starts with a 1.30 ERA. That doesn't mean he'll be the best pitcher in baseball -- ever. But, if healthy, he's going to be one of them.


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