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

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; D01

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.

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.

Only some massive and unseen X Factor will stop him -- a sudden lack of poise in the majors, a radical drop off in stuff as innings pile up or an injury. Nobody anticipates any of those.

Patience is advised. In his first six starts, Clemens had an ERA of 7.13. But Adam Dunn has it right when he says, "There's a certain level of stuff that, if you've got it, you're going to get 'em out whether it's in Little League or the major leagues.

"We saw that rookie [Mike] Leake with the Reds on Saturday. He's got it," added Dunn of the five-pitch, paint-the-black, Greg Maddux-style righty who was taken eight picks after Strasburg, never spent a day in the minors and has a 2.22 ERA after 11 starts. "Strasburg's a different type. But he's got it, too."

Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman, and others, compare Strasburg to Ubaldo Jiménez of Colorado, in terms of raw stuff. Both are 6 feet 4, 220 pounds and have a remarkably similar repertoire. The Rockies star has a 100-mph sinker that's a smidge faster than Strasburg's and perhaps slightly deeper. Nothing beats one monster pitch that you can throw anytime to anybody with impunity. Ubaldo has it. Jiménez's 90-mph changeup may drop a bit more than Strasburg's, too.

Strasburg's best pitch is his slider, which he throws at two speeds; it easily tops Ubaldo. As for control (low walks) and command (precision in the strike zone), Strasburg had mastery in the minors that Jiménez only achieved this year. At 23 in AAA, a wild Jiménez had a 5.85 ERA. That's why scouts call Strasburg incredibly "advanced." And it's why you can't wait to see him.

"Strasburg is like Jiménez, not [Kerry] Wood or Clemens," said Riggleman of the men who struck out 20 in a game. "They both have a lot of action on their sinkers in the strike zone and want to get ground ball outs. People shouldn't come out looking for 10 strikeouts from Strasburg.

"It's better to get three outs on 12 pitches than three strikeouts on 18. Eventually, it'll let Strasburg go eight, nine innings more often."

The national hype surrounding this debut is a bit embarrassing to everyone, including Strasburg, who didn't ask for it. Dunn just puts his forefinger up under his chin as if blowing his brains out. If he hates it, imagine Strasburg. "You know he can't wait to get past all this and out on the mound to throw the first pitch," said Dunn.

Over-the-top hoopla is usually reserved, by long tradition, to the city that possesses the pitching phenom. It's for the locals, the yokels to make a spectacle of ourselves and savor our own silliness. From Bob Feller to Mark Prior to now, you never know who pans out or flames out. But you know the first day is magic.

We'll have to share with 200 credentialed media, and a national TV audience, just like a playoff game. That's okay. Welcome. There hasn't been a postseason game here since 1933. Many in the sport have almost forgotten where D.C. is. Now, baseball can start to rediscover Washington. Find the U.S. Capitol, go 15 blocks south. Nice park, big river, gravel pit, hard to miss. Someday, when the baseball world congregates in D.C. once more, the same itinerant baseball caravan will come to watch Strasburg open a playoff series, maybe with Harper as his cleanup hitter. And they won't get lost along the way.

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