strasburg's sudden end

(Jonathan Newton)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Shortly after 4 p.m. on Aug. 21, Stephen Strasburg walked into the visitors' clubhouse at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park wearing sunglasses. The future seemed that bright. About three hours later, the Washington Nationals' phenom would make his 12th big league start, as his memorable rookie season wound down. It was a Saturday night in Philadelphia. The two-time defending National League champs were in the other dugout. The stands were packed.

Strasburg's teammates could feel the energy coursing through their clubhouse. Watching the phenom from his own locker, Ian Desmond, the Nationals' rookie shortstop, wore a knowing smile. "I don't usually go making predictions," Desmond said. "But you watch. The sellout crowd, the Phillies - he's going to be locked in. This could be really special."

It was possible, at that point, to dream big: Just 22 years old, Strasburg already was one of the top handful of pitchers in the game - and without question its biggest individual draw - and the Nationals could see their timetable for becoming a playoff contender grow a little shorter each time he took the mound.

Strasburg was still in his street clothes, the sunglasses removed, when he plopped down on a couch in the center of the clubhouse, next to outfielder Michael Morse. Each held an iPhone. They tapped away at the screens furiously - playing each other in a video fishing game, the outcome of which was always the same.

"I never once beat him," Morse said later. "Absolutely not. There was no way."

When it was almost time to go out to the bullpen to begin warming up, Steve McCatty, the Nationals' grizzled pitching coach, began ribbing Strasburg about the notoriously obnoxious Phillies fans, who would line the bullpen on two sides, separated only by a railing and a distance of about 15 feet, and undoubtedly give the kid an earful.

"I was like: 'Hey, big boy, wait until you get out there. Wait until they slice-n-dice you. We'll see how tough you are,' " McCatty recalled.

As Strasburg climbed the bullpen mound and began throwing lightly, the crowds pressed in around him, three-deep in some areas - but it was eerily quiet. Most of the fans held cameras or camera phones up to their faces, too engrossed to perform their duties as intimidators. The only distraction came when a security guard, stationed in a roped-off section directly behind Strasburg, pulled out his own phone and began taking pictures, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez waved him away.

"Nobody said anything," McCatty said. "It was like they really thought they were seeing history."

A few hours later, shortly after 9:30 p.m., it was all over: Strasburg's night and, as it turned out, his season. A good chunk of the Nationals' hopes for 2011. And the notion, unfounded and naïve as it was, that Strasburg was somehow indestructible, somehow different than all the other phenoms who have broken down.

Desmond had been right. Strasburg was locked in that night in Philadelphia, delivering, up until the fateful bottom of the fifth inning, what was perhaps his most dominating performance since his unforgettable June 8 debut, when he electrified Nationals Park by striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates.

And the Phillies' fans lining the bullpen that night had been correct, too. They saw history. They saw the most talented, most hyped, most famous pitching phenom in years throw the final pitch of his rookie season. They saw him grab his arm after delivering an unremarkable change-up, his 53rd pitch of the game, then grimace and gesture to the dugout for help.

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