Even in defeat, Nationals' Strasburg continues to amaze

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Now, after suffering his first major league defeat, 1-0, to Kansas City on Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg is starting to learn how Walter Johnson felt.

No one in big league history ever won as many 1-0 games as Johnson (38) or lost as many 1-0 games (26). So, the way the Nationals have been hitting lately, Strasburg may have to learn to cope the same way the old Senator did a century ago. If the team with "Washington" on its chest won't help you much, just keep trying to rise above 'em.

If anything, the way Strasburg has reacted to this non-support has impressed his manager and teammates even more. In two straight pitchers' duels, his competitiveness and ability to stifle rallies with clutch pitches have demonstrated his heart. They already knew about his stuff, command, poise and maturity. Now they know he's a fighter, too.

"The Royals have the highest batting average [in the big leagues] and Stephen competed with less than his best stuff today. They know how to hit. They got nine [singles]. But when it was gut-check time with men on base, he reached back and got a little extra," Manager Jim Riggleman said.

"This time, he was really good. The other times, he's been spectacular. He's just a treasure," Riggleman said. "It's time for him to be mentioned with the other pitchers who came into the league like a house afire, like Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens."

In his previous start, Strasburg faced the White Sox, the hardest team in baseball to strike out, yet left after seven innings against Chicago with a 1-1 tie and 10 strikeouts. This time, against Kansas City, the second-hardest team to strike out, he left after six battling innings with nine strikeouts and, again, no walks. What happens when he meets the D'backs, who strike out 10 times while they're still in the parking lot?

In his three starts at Nationals Park, Strasburg now has 33 strikeouts and no walks.

That's just as stupid good as you think it is. And the public has responded. With a crowd of 31,913 on a sweltering afternoon for a 4:35 p.m. start, the Nats' attendance for June has now risen by more than 33 percent over April and May with three crowds for non-Strasburg games over 31,000. In their next homestand, helped by two Strasburg starts, they'll almost certainly leapfrog from 24th to 19th in attendance in the span of five weeks.

Since they first saw Strasburg in spring training, the Nats have been stingy with compliments and comparisons, trying not to praise a rookie too much too soon. But, perhaps his proof of heart, or their inability to help him in the least, loosened their tongues. The Royals have many flaws, but they are as good a slap-hitting team as the sport provides. And they followed their plan perfectly with two infield hits, three singles poked through the middle and four more singles plunked to the opposite field.

Yet it got them only one run as Strasburg actually lowered his ERA to 1.78 and set a record for most strikeouts in the first four games of a career (41), topping Herb Score (40).

"A guy with the stuff he has, and the way he handles himself out there, is not going to be hit hard by a high-average team or a high home run team," Ryan Zimmerman said. "There's no team that's going to be able to handle him. It's not going to matter.

"He's unbelievable."

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