When team officials arrived at Nationals Park on the morning of June 8, 2010, fans were already gathering outside the gated players-only parking lot. Some of the fans had waited a year for this day, the unveiling of Stephen Strasburg on a major league field, in a Washington Nationals uniform. They called it “Strasmas.”
The ballclub decided to spare Strasburg another vivid reminder of the hype attending his debut. Per the team’s instructions, Strasburg and his wife, Rachel, drove straight into the bowels of the stadium, near a loading dock. Strasburg got out of the car to begin his workday, and to become a big leaguer.
Nearly a year has passed since the baseball world turned to Washington, not to laugh or mock, but to stare in awe the first time Strasburg ascended a major league mound. The moments that followed — the two fastballs that traveled 100 , the 14 Pittsburgh Pirates he struck out, the seventh-inning curtain call – instantly became the most unforgettable night of Washington baseball in at least a generation.
Strasburg was the rarest of commodities in a hype-saturated sports culture: a phenom who surpassed expectations.
“That was as good as a game could get for our franchise. I can truly say, with all that I’ve done, it was one of the highlights of my career, one of the most exciting, anticipated days of my career,” said former Nationals President Stan Kasten. “And we all felt when that day was over, that it exceeded expectations.”
Strasburg, who wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story, is recovering from Tommy John surgery, but that night still resonates. Injury stole from him the chance for many more unforgettable performances, and the powerful memory of his debut stands in for what might have been.
A year ago, Strasburg arrived a day before his debut, an off day for the Nationals. For a week or two, the Nationals had zeroed in on June 8, and Kasten told Strasburg before he made his final minor league start. The world knew a few days later.
Tickets disappeared instantly. The Nationals issued more than 200 media credentials, more than they would for an early-round playoff game. They hired extra ushers, security guards and ticket takers.
The clubhouse on game day was filled with media and dignitaries, but most everyone left Strasburg alone, including the Nationals’ ownership. Kasten approached and the two had a “casual” exchange. “He didn’t strike me as overly nervous,” he said.
At about 6:15 p.m., Strasburg emerged from the first base dugout. Fans rushed toward the bullpen in right field and stood three deep to watch him play long toss and then warm up. After a half hour, Strasburg was ready. He threw his last pitch in the bullpen, and pitching coach Steve McCatty sidled up next to him.
“We’re going to go through the gate,” McCatty said. “You’re going to hear all these people calling, ‘Stephen!’ Remember, it’s my first name, too. It’s not for you. It’s for me.”
Strasburg stepped through the bullpen door. The stands, already packed, erupted. They shouted, ‘Stephen! Stephen!’ McCatty doffed his cap. Strasburg broke up laughing.
It was 79 degrees when the Nationals took the field, with a 14 mph northwest wind. Strasburg stood behind the mound, next to a spike cleaner, a rosin bag and a perfectly manicured curly W. He took off his cap, wiped his forehead and put it back on. He climbed the mound.
He concealed the ball in his black glove and stared in at the plate, past leadoff hitter Andrew McCutcheon, at catcher Ivan Rodriguez. McCatty had not reviewed any scouting reports with Strasburg, hoping to keep his mind uncluttered as he dealt with the nerves and pressure of his debut. Strasburg was to simply throw the pitches Rodriguez called.
McCutcheon felt like he was in a playoff game. Rodriguez put down one finger. Strasburg stepped back, turned his body, lifted his left leg and whipped his arm toward the plate. Camera flashes flickered like so many fireflies.
The radar gun lit up: 97 mph. Home plate umpire Tom Hallion called ball one, inside. Rodriguez tossed the ball into the dugout for clubhouse manager Mike Wallace, who would deliver it to one of three MLB authenticators at the park.
Rodriguez asked for another fastball, and Strasburg threw it 97 again, another ball. The crowd booed Hallion’s call. Behind 2-0, Strasburg threw another fastball. McCutcheon ripped a line drive right at shortstop Ian Desmond. He caught the first out of Strasburg’s career.
The hard contact imbued McCutcheon with confidence. “I thought it was going to be a good game after that,” McCutcheon said. “It wasn’t.”
Strasburg recorded his first strikeout to end the first inning, throwing an 83 mph curveball that Lastings Milledge could not have hit had he swung an oar. In the second, he threw his first 100 mph fastball, a ball to Delwyn Young, allowed the first of four hits, a single by Andy LaRoche, and threw his first change-up, 90 mph, as fast as Pirates starter Jeff Karstens’s fastball.
Strasburg cruised into the fourth, still leading 1-0 thanks to Ryan Zimmerman’s first-inning homer. The first two Pirates singled, and a double play put a runner on third with two outs. He threw Young a 1-0 change-up, which Young belted into the right field seats, above the scoreboard. Strasburg had allowed his first run, and the Nationals were losing.
The first batter Strasburg faced in the fifth inning was Ronny Cedeno. Strasburg blew a letter-high, 99 mph fastball past him for strike three. After he struck out Karstens looking to end the fifth inning, Strasburg walked into the dugout and down the tunnel toward the clubhouse, to chat with McCatty. That high fastball to Cedeno stuck with him.
“He said, ‘I’ve never done that before. I’ve never tried to pitch high in the zone,’ ” McCatty said. “It opened up a different door for him.”
At that point, Strasburg had struck out eight batters. Still angered by Young’s homer and emboldened by the high heat he threw past Cedeno, he trudged to the mound in the sixth. He struck out the three batters he faced, all swinging. Nationals Park exploded when Adam Dunn hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning. Strasburg could win his debut.
In the seventh, Strasburg’s strikeout of Garrett Jones, his 12th, filled the space allotted by the K-counting outfield scoreboard. The Nationals never assumed anyone would rack up more than a dozen.
Everyone at Nationals Park stood, each pitch adding to the delirium. Up came Young. Strasburg had a score to settle. He threw three fastballs, at 98, 99 and 99 mph. Young swung at the last two, the final pitch another high fastball for strike three.
Up walked LaRoche, the only hitter Strasburg had not struck out. Strasburg threw him two curveballs for two strikes. He fired his 94th pitch of the night, a 99 mph fastball, high and outside. LaRoche flailed. Strasburg stomped off the mound, concealing his adrenaline and emotion. He had struck out the last seven batters he faced, 14 for the night, more than anyone since baseball returned to D.C.
He had just become baseball’s biggest sensation, but Strasburg remained hesitant to step outside the bounds of a typical rookie. As he stood on the dugout steps, Michael Morse and third base coach Pat Listach shoved him onto the field. Wearing a red hoodie, Strasburg lifted his cap and waved it in the air.
In the suite at Nationals Park where his family and friends gathered, tears started flowing.
A year since Strasburg’s debut, the joy of that night has been tinged with sadness. As he recovers ligament replacement surgery, Strasburg has begun throwing bullpen sessions. By the end of July, he will likely pitch in a minor league rehab game. He might pitch in the majors in September.
Last month in the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park, Cedeno was talking about how nasty Strasburg was. Then he interrupted himself, and asked a question that hovers over the memories of that game.
“How’s he doing right now?” he asked.