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Stephen Strasburg turns romance to reality for one magic evening

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; D05

Unless you had religiously followed him to the minor-league towns of Harrisburg and Syracuse -- unless you had seen footage from his college games at San Diego State -- the young pitcher with the howitzer right arm was still very much myth, something to be believed rather than broken down on celluloid.

Because baseball at its sublime best can still be a game of the imagination -- AM radio making you see an inside-the-park home run, excited tales of a kid who could throw more than 100 mph tumbling from an old scout's lips -- Stephen Strasburg, the person, did not take the mound two weeks before his 22nd birthday last night as much as Stephen Strasburg, folk hero with a forkball did.

Hardly interviewed before his first major league start, heard about more than seen in person, he pretty much walked out of a Ken Burns documentary or a Robert Redford screenplay.

"He does have this Roy Hobbs-like quality to him," said, yes, Ken Burns, the great chronicler of American history who took in the game Tuesday night at Nationals Park. "For those of us who haven't seen him, there's so much we take on faith."

Fourteen strikeouts later, on the most pristine night in Southeast Washington imaginable, believe.

Believe big.

Believe in everything you're hearing or they're saying about Strasburg, who incredibly surpassed expectations we almost felt guilty about heaping on him.

Heck, when they tell you he struck out "The Whammer" three weeks ago at a county fair while Robert Duvall called strikes in a meadow, believe that too.

Because when that same kid takes the mound at 7:06 p.m. and pitches almost flawlessly through seven innings -- moving the ball, changing speeds, mastering the moment -- it's not a myth anymore. It's the future.

"It's not just good, it's amazing what I see from him," Liván Hernández said, surveying Strasburg sitting by his cubicle in the Nationals' clubhouse late Tuesday night. "I might never see a pitcher that young pitch like that in my life in his first game."

He froze hitters. He discombobulated Lastings Milledge with a curveball that went sideways, straight and then sideways again.

Fourteen strikeouts is one shy of any kid in major-league history making his debut. It's two more than the electronic 'K' line at Nationals Park could display. "I had no idea it only went to 12 strikeouts," Stan Kasten, the Nationals team president, said after the "It never occurred to me that we needed more."

And the noise, growing in decibels as each batter was sent back to the dugout.

"Let's go Strasburg! Let's go Strasburg!"

They chanted his name as he reared and fired that last strike and fanned the Pittsburgh side in the seventh, a 95 mph, high, blazing heater that brought 40,315 to their feet.

"I was able to talk to John Smoltz the other night, and he just reminded me to soak it all in," Strasburg said. "I went out earlier to stretch and really looked at everything around, looked at the fans. It's just a great experience, but once they said 'play ball,' it was go time."

When he trudged onto that field more than a half hour before his first start, he had this almost affected jocular walk, cowboy-like, as if he had been roping cattle and breaking stallions in the bullpen. Then came those bullets sailing toward home plate, two-seamers and four-seamers and that baffling curveball.

This is the most majestic part of a young phenom making a city stand and roar -- the beginning.

We love our agents of hope and change in this town, especially the young ones. John Wall will soon see. Bryce Harper, too.

Of course the romance gradually turns to reality. In sports and life, myth gives way to man. And we soon lump the messiahs in with the establishment -- Hello, Mr. President -- and the search for the next chosen one begins anew.

But the hope here is that comes way down the road for the rookie right-hander who sent everyone home happy and in awe on Tuesday night. That he paused for a moment of reflection and gratitude before the first pitch, just like John Smoltz told him to, says everything.

Nice, no? Strasburg took the time for at least one glance into the stands to see all the red, to see the euphoric faces from different generations filled with hope and possibility looking back at him.

It was the first night, the best night, and nothing that follows, good or bad, can take that away from him and the people who chanted his name.

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