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

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; D01

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?

"I hope that I am faced with some tough decisions on when to take him out of games," said Manager Jim Riggleman on Sunday. "I hope there'll be times when fans say, 'Should Jim have taken him out?' because that will mean he's having some great games."

After one start, that doubt is removed. There are shutouts, high-strikeout games and, almost certainly, no-hitters ahead for this man. Not that he will have a clear memory of them.

"I remember the first pitch -- a ball inside. Everything else is just a blur. I didn't even know what inning it was at one point," said Strasburg, who used no scouting report, but will next time. "It's like getting married. You want to remember everything. But once it's done, you can't remember a single thing."

Don't worry, everybody else can.

If it hadn't been for the inconvenience of that artificial but wise pitch-count ("he probably could have throw 195 pitches tonight," said Riggleman), Strasburg would have cut up Spooner's record with his knifing curveball and pitchfork of a fastball that lit the scoreboard with a "100" reading several times.

So what if Strasburg never struck out more than nine men in a game in the minors and said that, as a pro, he wanted pitch-saving ground balls, not whiffs. Remember his days at San Diego State and the 23-strikeout game we all wore out on YouTube? "It felt like that game and the no-hitter [in college]," said Strasburg. "Early, I was a little bit all over the place. . . . But as the game went on, the adrenalin kicked in and everything was working."

On 93 of his 94 pitches, Strasburg allowed only three singles and walked no one -- a 14-0 ratio. Except for one pitch, Strasburg might have pitched shutout ball and had one of the highest "game scores" in the history of all debuts as computed by baseball-reference.com. He wouldn't have rivaled Juan Marichal's 12-strikeout, one-hit shutout -- the top-rated game ever -- but he'd have been within sight of anybody else, held back from the top by the contemporary aversion to complete games.

But he didn't. And that actually brought extra drama to the night. His worst pitch was still a good one -- a knee-high change-up. But this is the big leagues and in the Show, a change-up, if anticipated, can be smacked into the first row of the right-centerfield bleachers for a two-out, two-run home run.

And that's just what Delwyn Young did in the fourth inning.

Perhaps mildly annoyed, Strasburg retired the last 10 hitters in order. Crank up the myth machine. Or at least the silver Elvis wig and a double-serving of shaving-cream pie in the face.

From beginning to end, this evening's entertainment was guilty of false advertising. On this perfect night, Strasburg was not introduced to the major leagues, as so many said. Instead, the big leagues were introduced to Strasburg.

It was a magnificent mismatch.

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