Stephen Strasburg sets Washington Nationals strikeout record, gets win in debut

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; D01

The near-capacity crowd stood and cheered a moment like none of them had ever witnessed at Nationals Park. 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. Strasburg looked into the stands and lifted 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 -- the Pittsburgh Pirates appeared just as helpless as the minor leaguers the right-hander had feasted on for the past two months. Strasburg 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 forged a new milestone 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. No pitcher in baseball history had ever struck out 14 or more batters while using fewer than 96 pitches. Strasburg needed 94.

In the seventh inning, the electric display that counts strikeouts as Ks in the Nationals Park outfield went blank. The scoreboard, the Nationals learned, contained only 12 Ks. "Why would I have had to know that?" team President Stan Kasten said.

Afterward, Strasburg 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 Olsen did the same. Center fielder Nyjer Morgan lifted up a plastic, silver Elvis wig -- the totem the Nationals award to the player of the game -- and slapped it on Strasburg's head as the phenom smiled through shaving cream.

Strasburg said it stung "a little bit. But it's the greatest feeling in the world."

After Strasburg threw his final warm-up pitches -- he chose "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes to blare over the stadium speakers -- the crowd readied. Camera flashes flickered on his first pitch to Andrew McCutheon -- a 97-mph fastball low and inside. Immediately after the game, Strasburg said he remembered only that pitch.

Two pitches later, McCutheon lined out to shortstop Ian Desmond. Strasburg's career had started. "There were definitely a little bit of nerves," Strasburg said. "I thought there were going to be more nerves than there was."

Strasburg operated without a scouting report, relying on future Hall of Fame catcher Iván Rodríguez. Strasburg shook off Rodriguez just once. Rodríguez wanted Strasburg to throw a curveball to start the game. "He told me, 'No,' " Rodríguez said.

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 most of the fastballs thrown by Jeff Karstens, the Pirates' starting pitcher.

"Strikeouts are more of an accident than anything," Strasburg said. "You want to go out there and let them put the ball in play. It happens some games, but not all games are going to be like this."

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

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.

By then, Strasburg was rolling. He 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. Strasburg stared at the plate, his glove concealing his face except his eyes and the straight brim of his cap. He had already struck out four in a row. After he struck out Jones swinging at a curve, he recalled the game at San Diego State when he struck out 23 batters.

"The adrenaline was definitely flowing there," Strasburg said. "I was just going to throw the ball as hard as I can."

He threw six more pitches. All of them were strikes. He threw four fastballs, all of them 98 mph or faster. His final pitch, his 94th of the night, was a 99 mph fastball. Andy LaRoche swung and missed. The crowd erupted.

After the game ended and his shaving-cream smearing, Strasburg walked back to the clubhouse. When he reached the top of the steps, closer Matt Capps waited for him. He handed Strasburg the game ball. Capps said, "That was pretty neat."

Those in stands lingered a while, as if they didn't the night to end. The baseball world had looked to Washington, and the Nationals had owned the city.

"I'm proud of him," Rodríguez said. "I'm proud of the organization, the whole city of Washington. The fans came to see what they wanted to see. There's nothing better than that."

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