An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to former Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, whose record for most strikeouts in a pitcher's first three starts was broken by Stephen Strasburg, as deceased.
With President Obama in attendance, Stephen Strasburg maintains supreme command despite Nationals loss
Saturday, June 19, 2010
When Stephen Strasburg made his debut 11 days ago, I could hear the cheers all the way out in Kansas. I could hear the ka-ching of the cash registers ringing up those "37" jerseys and smell those Strasburgers on the grill from 1,250 miles away, where I was riding out the storm.
I just couldn't miss another Strasmas, so Friday night President Obama and I decided to head to Nationals Park to check out this Strasburg kid, whose third career start turned into a no decision as he gave up one run on four hits with 10 strikeouts and not a single walk in the Nats' 2-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox in 11 innings.
The president and I got separated in the line for Ben's Chili Bowl, which is just as well because he was drawing a lot of funny looks. Must have been the White Sox cap. Still, I hope he enjoyed the show as much as I did.
How good is Strasburg? Laurence Fishburne should tweet, "Forget Neo, this guy is the one." I keep thinking of lines from the "world's most interesting man" commercials. "Sharks have a week dedicated to him." I mean, he's that good.
I have never had any doubt that Strasburg has the stuff to be a dominant big league pitcher, maybe the dominant big league pitcher of his generation. However, I also never thought he'd strike out 14 in his major league debut, that he'd be averaging more than 10 strikeouts a game, and that his ERA would be lower than 2 after three starts.
Strasburg will be hit -- and hit hard -- one of these days. Even the greatest pitchers get hit hard on occasion. Friday was not that occasion. His teammates are going to fail to give him run support. Friday was that occasion. The Nationals managed just five hits against another pretty good twirler, Gavin Floyd, who went eight innings, and the White Sox' bullpen.
The amazing thing about Strasburg is not so much how good he is, but how much better he is than all the pre-Strasburg hype. When was the last time you heard all the build-up for anything -- a TV show, a movie, a sports team -- and afterward thought, "That really lived up to expectations." Joe Gibbs's return to the Redskins generated a lot of excitement but never panned out. The same thing happened to the Caps this spring.
That's why it's hard to take your eyes off Strasburg. He's crazy good. He can throw 100 mph but six of his 10 strikeouts last night came on his wicked change-up. "I tried to throw it over the plate a little bit more than the previous outing," said Strasburg, who along with Manager Jim Riggleman credited catcher Pudge Rodríguez for calling a solid game. "I went out there and trusted it." As a result, his ERA is a cool 1.86 and he's tied for third among Nats pitchers for strikeouts this season -- despite the fact his season didn't begin until June 8.
Still, he threw some groundouts and some flyballs, which is good to see.
Crash Davis said it best: "Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some groundballs -- it's more democratic." It's good to be democratic when the leader of the free world is looking on from a luxury suite -- but 10 strikeouts is still Mussolini-like.
Strasburg admitted he knew the president was watching. "I heard some rumors," he said. "I am assuming those people taking pictures of that box, that was him. It was awesome [that Obama came to see him pitch]. Of course, he's from Chicago so he came to watch the White Sox, too."
Obama was slightly late, like many Nats fans, but he was there when Strasburg notched his 30th career strikeout on Friday. That set a major league record for most strikeouts in the first three starts of a player's career. The previous mark of 29 was set by J.R. Richard in 1971. He's going to break a lot of these kinds of pseudo-records over the coming decade, but the amazing thing about this one: It was the fifth inning. And while the announcement was being made over the public address system in the press box, he struck out No. 31. He got No. 32 before being taken out after seven innings. This kid uses more K's than a dictionary and inspires more adjectives than a thesaurus.
Eventually, of course, a lot of the hubbub over Strasburg will die down. On Friday the media contingent had significantly dwindled, which is as much a comment on the financial state of the media as it is on Strasburg, but still. The crowd was large -- it went into the books as a sellout -- but there appeared to be at least several hundred empty seats. Fans were Friday-night-baseball excited but not teenage-girls-seeing-the-Beatles-in-the-60s excited.
It's understandable. This town has been buzzing every five days like overachieving cicadas, and it's hard to sustain that kind of frenzy. After his June 8 debut, there were attempts at nicknames for him, his scary arsenal of pitches, his propensity for strikeouts. Special K. The Ellipse. K Street. There was the Strasburger and the talk of changing the name of Strasburg, Va., to Stephen Strasburg, Va. I'm not sorry I missed that part of the story.
But Washington isn't ready yet to treat the rookie like just another pitcher, even an incredibly talented one. He's going to have to endure more tributes, more presidential attention, more attempts at nicknames. Even his manager can't quite stop the hyperbole.
"I can't put it into words any better than what you guys saw," Riggleman said last night.
He's not the only one running out of words.