Stephen Strasburg sets team strikeout record in debut as Nationals beat Pirates

Stephen Strasburg dazzles in his first major-league game as Washington beats Pittsburgh, 5-2, at Nationals Park.
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The standing-room-only crowd at Nationals Park stood and cheered a moment like none of them had ever witnessed. The five years of losing, the months of waiting, the breathless hype, it all led to this: Stephen Strasburg standing on the top step of the home dugout in a Washington Nationals jersey, having done something nobody could believe, lifting his cap.

There should have been no way Strasburg could have matched the expectations attached to his first major league start Tuesday night. And yet he surpassed them. Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in seven innings, setting a new Nationals record on one of the most momentous days since baseball returned to the District.

"It was just a great night for baseball in Washington," Manager Jim Riggleman said.

In a 5-2 Nationals victory -- Strasburg's first major league win -- Strasburg made the Pittsburgh Pirates appear just as helpless as the minor leaguers he had feasted on for the past two months. He struck out all nine Pirates in the starting lineup and struck out the final seven batters he faced. He hit 100 mph on the radar gun twice, allowed two runs on four hits -- including a two-run home run by Delwyn Young in the fourth inning -- walked none, and provided a new memory in Washington sports history.

Even in his 11 minor league starts, Strasburg had not dominated so thoroughly, never surpassing nine strikeouts in one game. After Young's home run, Strasburg retired the final 10 hitters he faced, striking out eight of them. On Tuesday, he was good enough to justify everyone's wildest hopes. Before the game, Strasburg chatted with reliever Drew Storen, his best friend on his new team. "Be yourself," Storen told Strasburg. "There's a reason all this is happening."

"It really is surreal," said Mark Lerner, the Nationals' principal owner. "It's hard to sink in. The whole spring and every time he touches a ball, the whole anticipation, I've never seen anything like it. There are so many people who were looking forward to this day."

After Strasburg threw his final warmup pitches -- he chose "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes to blare over the stadium speakers -- the crowd readied. Flashbulbs flickered on his first pitch to Andrew McCutheon -- a 97 mph fastball low and inside. Two pitches later, McCutheon lined out to shortstop Ian Desmond. Strasburg's career had started.

His first strikeout came at the end of the first inning, when he threw two curveballs to former National Lastings Milledge. Milledge leaned backward like a character from "The Matrix" while looking at the first. He flailed at the second while looking at the left field foul pole.

The Pirates could figure out none of his pitches -- his first three strikeouts came on a 99-mph fastball, an 83-mph curveball and an 89-mph darting change-up that sailed faster than the fastball of Jeff Karstens, the Pirates' starting pitcher.

Strasburg did not cruise through his maiden outing without adversity. In the fourth, he allowed consecutive singles by Neil Walker and Milledge. He induced a 6-4-3 double play by Garrett Jones on a 96-mph sinker. But up came Young. He roped a change-up over the fence in right-center. Ryan Zimmerman's home run had given the Nationals the lead. But they now trailed, 2-1, Young's home run threatening to spoil an electric night.

In the sixth inning, the Nationals gave Strasburg back the lead. Adam Dunn hit a two-run home run to the upper deck over the Nationals' bullpen in right field. Josh Willingham followed with another home run, to left, and put the Nationals ahead 4-2.

Strasburg emerged from the dugout and walked out to the mound for the seventh inning. He had thrown 81 pitches, nine shy of his rough allotment. Staring straight at the plate, his glove concealing his face except his eyes and the straight brim of his cap, Strasburg unleashed an unfair succession of pitches. He had already struck out four in a row. He set down Jones, Young and Andy LaRoche in order.

After the win was secured and as he gave a television interview in front of the Nationals' dugout, pitcher John Lannan snuck behind him and smeared a shaving cream pie in his face. Scott Olen did the same. Nyjer Morgan lifted up the silver Elvis wig -- the totem that goes to the Nationals' player of the game -- and slapped it on Strasburg's head as he smiled through shaving cream.

Those in stands lingered a while, as if they didn't the night to end. The Nationals owned the city. It really was surreal.

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