Washington Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez impressed by Stephen Strasburg's debut

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

As Stephen Strasburg sat behind a microphone Tuesday night, a room full of notebooks and recorders and television cameras stretched out before him, a man whose major league debut came when Strasburg was all of 3 sat beside him, watching and listening, wondering if he would approve of what was said.

"This is just an important day for myself and my family and all the people that have helped me my entire baseball career," Strasburg said, and Iván Rodríguez nodded -- sometimes emphatically -- with almost every word. Each time Strasburg downplayed the significance -- which, in some corners, seemed intergalactic -- of his seven-inning, 14-strikeout performance that helped his major league career explode with a 5-2 victory for his Washington Nationals over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rodríguez responded by giving a veteran's endorsement.

"This kid is great," Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez is 38 and has caught 2,321 games, more than anyone in big league history. He has won one World Series and played in another. But the game he was on the receiving end of Tuesday night -- from the first fastball for a ball to the last of Strasburg's 94 pitches, his final a strikeout -- ranks right there with any of them.

"I been catching a lot of guys, but this kid is unbelievable," Rodríguez said. "The most amazing thing is he's around the plate, he throws strikes, and he's always in the strike zone. [Normally], especially guys that young, like Stephen, they come and get behind in the count, but he didn't do that today. He just attacked the strike zone."

Rodríguez, though, was at the controls. When the day began, neither Strasburg, who hadn't officially been called up from Class AAA Syracuse, nor Rodríguez, who was on the disabled list with a bad back, were on the active roster. Strasburg's promotion was a formality, and Nationals Park popped with 40,315 people because of it.

Rodríguez, though, had to go through batting practice and check himself out with the athletic training staff before he was permitted to play -- even though he got in a game with Class A Potomac on Monday night. Did Rodríguez, who has caught pitchers Strasburg couldn't possibly name, want to be back for this event?

"I promise you," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "He won't even joke about that. No question he wanted to be back for this."

Strasburg, too, wanted him back. He said he spent time getting updates on Rodríguez's health in the week before his start. Nothing against Wil Nieves, the likely catcher had Rodríguez not been healthy, but Strasburg's reasoning was simple.

"It really means a lot to me to start my career with a future Hall of Famer catching me," Strasburg said.

Prior to the game, Rodríguez not only had to take batting practice and get cleared medically, but he had to go through the routine for a catcher with a new series starting -- meetings to go over both the opposing pitchers and the opposing hitters. The one absence, in this case, was Strasburg. The Nationals wanted the 21-year-old, as he said, "to just go out there and enjoy it." So the starting pitcher essentially had no scouting report on the Pirates, who have the worst batting average in the majors.

The preparation, then, was left to Rodríguez. He wanted to start the first hitter with a breaking ball.

"He said, 'No,' " Rodríguez said, and he smiled. He is, after all, the veteran in this partnership, the one who can determine what's called and when -- and who has the right to approve of how it's analyzed afterward.

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