Just a hint of Stephen Strasburg's top capacity is simply stunning

Stephen Strasburg dazzles in his first major-league game as Washington beats Pittsburgh, 5-2, at Nationals Park.
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Washington has had more important events than Stephen Strasburg's 14-strikeout big league debut, games for enormous stakes, like a trip to a Super Bowl or battles in the NBA Finals. And the return of baseball here five years ago was the most emotionally charged night the sport has provided us so far in the new Nats era.

But this town has never had one game, one packed-house party, one continuous night-long celebration of possibility, one obliterate-all-expectations career launch that could even remotely approach the electric future that Strasburg's 5-2 victory instantly foretold.

Before Tuesday night, the 21-year-old rookie's first game was a must-attend event or, at least, a must watch TV moment. His talent and the unprecedented hype surrounding his arrival demanded it. Now, hard to believe, that's utterly changed. The anticipation, if anything, will go even higher. After allowing no walks, two runs and four hits in seven innings, while coming within one whiff of Karl Spooner's all-time strikeout record in a big-league debut, what on earth comes next?

After the destruction the Nationals rookie wreaked on the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup, every one of his games now falls into that can't-miss category. The excitement that started two hours before the game, then extended through warm-ups with fans craning over the Nats bullpen to smell the Strasburg smoke, to the standing-room-only crowd's curtain call for the town's new star, will be recreated with vast variation many a time.

In fact, with luck, once every five days throughout the baseball season for many years to come.

"We were having a lot of fun in the bullpen," said rookie reliever Drew Storen as his friend struck out six of the first nine hitters he faced, then finished his 94-pitch effort with a star-is-officially-anointed crescendo of eight strikeouts in the last 10 hitters. "We had a TV, so we saw replays, too. It was kind of an unfair laughing reaction to some of the swings."

After some early wildness, Strasburg found command of his fastball and, having tortured the Bucs by throwing almost every curveball of the game for a strike, simply pounded every corner of the strike zone to close like Secretariat, fanning the last seven Buc hitters in a row. That's K-K-K-K-K-K-K to end his night with a W.

"Even the players on the other team were coming up saying to me, 'This guy is unbelievable,' " said Hall-of-Fame-bound catcher Iván Rodríguez. "Everybody was impressed with the way he attacked, got ahead, used all four pitches."

After just one night among us, it's clear that, like only a couple of dozen pitchers with names like Koufax, Ryan and Clemens, any Strasburg start might make history. Will his whole career approach theirs? Will he be durable and consistent? Those hardball questions can't be answered. But now we have a hint of Strasburg's maximum capacity, and it is stunning.

As a result, no other Nats game has remotely approached the energy level and constant noise of this one. The game's great strikeout artists, and the potential no-hit pitchers have always roused crowds, joining the cognoscenti and the casual fan in the shared bliss of "Strike one, strike two, strike three!"

"I haven't played before a crowd like that before," said left fielder Josh Willingham who, along with Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn (upper deck), homered to give fans a best-of-Nats highlight film. "The crowd wasn't just yelling for a strikeout. They were yelling on almost every pitch. An absolutely really cool game to be a part of."

For fans, entertainment choices are suddenly redefined. When does Strasburg pitch next? What excuse suffices to miss him? When he's allowed to throw 100 or 110 pitches, like normal folk, what happens next?

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