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Pitcher Stephen Strasburg makes his major league debut for Washington Nationals
Strasburg, a 21-year-old San Diego native, arrived at Nationals Park 364 days after being selected with the first overall pick of the 2009 draft, nearly 10 months after signing the most lucrative contract in the history of baseball's draft -- $15.1 million -- and 58 days after making his professional debut as a member of the Class AA Harrisburg Senators in Altoona, Pa. Those 58 days, as Strasburg abused minor league batters at two different levels across New York and Pennsylvania, only served to grow his legend and heighten anticipation among Nationals fans.
"It's a red-letter day for the franchise," Mark Lerner, the team's principal owner, said Tuesday. "I think that fans one day will look back and say, 'I was here the day the franchise took the next step.' "
On Tuesday, four teenage fans from Southbury, Conn. -- more Strasburg fans than Nationals fans, they said -- drove six hours south to Nationals Park, carrying a sign that read, "Strasburg Is Our Savior." It was merely the latest biblical reference to a pitcher dubbed "Jesus" by awestruck teammates during spring training.
"It's a prophecy," one of the teenagers, Cody Herr, explained.
"Back home," said his friend, Zack Ulrich, "we call him Saint Stephen."
Strasburg himself is as grounded and humble as they come. He arrived at the stadium Tuesday in mid-afternoon with his wife, Rachel, with team officials escorting them in through an entrance to the ballpark out of public sight.
At 3:30 p.m., as the media were allowed into the Nationals' clubhouse, Strasburg sat in a brown recliner looking up at a flat-screen television. Every other TV in the clubhouse was turned to ESPN, which featured wall-to-wall Strasburg coverage, but the phenom himself, decked out in a red T-shirt, navy blue mesh shorts and black flip-flops, was watching "Cash Cab" on the Discovery Channel.
While Rachel was making an early run on the Nationals' Team Store -- coming away with a bagful of limited-edition Strasburg 37 jerseys, and paying full price -- her husband was taking batting practice in an indoor cage, with a tin of dip tobacco in his back pocket and a pinch between his gum and lower lip.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Strasburg put on his gleaming white game uniform top -- No. 37, size 52 -- and laced up his spikes, size 15. As he walked to the outfield alongside pitching coach Steve McCatty to begin his pre-game stretching routine, the crowd along the right field line rose and cheered. The sections of seats around the Nationals' bullpen swelled with fans as he threw his warmup pitches.
Once the game started, Strasburg's exceptional ability, which had led many observers to call him the best pitching prospect in the game's history, revealed itself immediately. The first inning ended with a strikeout on a physics-defying curveball, and the second inning saw Strasburg's fastball reach 100 mph on the stadium radar readout, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd.
"The only thing I really remember is the first pitch -- a ball inside," Strasburg said. "Everything else is kind of a blur."
When Strasburg, protecting a 1-0 lead, gave up a two-run homer to Pirates right fielder Delwyn Young with two outs in the fourth inning, the crowd seemed almost confused -- Wait, that wasn't supposed to happen, was it? -- but went right back to cheering when Strasburg jogged back to the mound for the fifth.