Published June 08, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Over-hyped? Are you kidding? Stephen Strasburg went beyond the hype -- and anyone's reasonable expectations -- by striking out 14 batters in his electric major league debut.
With a standing-room-only crowd cheering every pitch, the Washington Nationals phenom put on a dazzling display of pitching power Tuesday night in a 5-2 win over Pittsburgh. His fastballs reached 100 mph, and the Pirates found his nasty curves nearly impossible to hit.
Last year's No. 1 overall draft pick -- the one with the record $15.1 million contract -- threw his first pitch 97 mph and got stronger as the game progressed. He struck out the last seven batters he faced, and all nine Pirates in the starting lineup fanned at least once.
The 21-year-old right-hander took a curtain call after pitching seven innings. He allowed four hits, two earned runs and didn't walk a batter, piling up the most strikeouts in a major league debut since J.R. Richard fanned 15 for Houston in 1971.
Karl Spooner also struck out 15 in his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. He and Richard are the only two pitchers with more strikeouts than Strasburg in a big league debut since 1920 -- and Spooner and Richard both had three walks.
Strasburg also tied Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers for most strikeouts in a game in the majors this season. Scherzer had 14 on May 30 against Oakland.
Strasburg was removed for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh with a 4-2 lead. When it was announced that he had set a team record for strikeouts since the franchise's move to Washington in 2005, the crowd roared again -- and Strasburg emerged to the top step of the dugout and tipped his cap.
He threw 94 pitches -- roughly the limit imposed by management before the game -- and 65 were strikes. He made one noticeable mistake, a 90 mph changeup golfed by Delwyn Young into the first row in right field for a two-run homer in the fourth inning. The ball would have made a great souvenir, but a fan threw it back onto the field.
The homer gave the Pirates a 2-1 lead, but the Nationals put their rookie in position to win with three runs in the sixth. Adam Dunn hit a two-run homer, and Josh Willingham followed with a solo shot, allowing Strasburg to leave the game with a two-run lead.
Ryan Zimmerman also homered for the Nationals, another solo shot in the first inning. All three of Washington's home runs came off Pirates starter Jeff Karstens.
The day was nicknamed "Strasmus" -- and it was the biggest baseball event in the nation's capital since the sport returned in 2005 after a 33-year absence. To go real deep into history, one could argue that Strasburg had the most anticipated Washington rookie pitching debut since Walter Johnson at the long-forgotten American League Park on Aug. 2, 1907.
Cameras flashed as Strasburg threw his first pitch at 7:06 p.m. -- well inside to leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen. Fans booed when umpire Tom Hallion called it a ball.
Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez then handed the ball to Hallion and it was removed from play for posterity.
McCutchen lined out to shortstop on a 2-0 pitch. Strasburg then got Neil Walker on a grounder to first and struck out Lastings Milledge with a pair of wicked curveballs for a 1-2-3 inning.
Only one Pirates batter reached against Strasburg in the first three innings. In the fourth, Strasburg allowed back-to-back singles. One of the runners was erased by a double play, but Young followed with his third homer of the season.
Strasburg was promoted after dominating the minors, going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA, 65 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 11 starts in Double-A and Triple-A. His debut came nearly a year to the day after he was drafted No. 1 overall, and one day after the Nationals -- who have lost 100 games in consecutive seasons -- chose 17-year-old hitting sensation Bryce Harper with the No. 1 overall selection in this year's draft.
Strasburg is a low-key kid in a high-hype world, a focused youngster whose fastball is much more lively than his news conferences. He quietly went about his business preparing to take the mound, fiddling with his glove a few hours before the game at his new locker, located between those of Wil Nieves and J.D. Martin.
Washington sold out Nationals Park for only the second time all season, and went through an extra 2,000 standing-room-only tickets a few hours before the game. Fans cheered when Strasburg emerged from the dugout at 6:24 p.m. with pitching coach Steve McCatty.
Surrounded by photographers and cameramen, Strasburg grinned at McCatty and said, "Let's go."
Strasburg used the center-field wall to do some stretching and then warmed up in the bullpen, where fans stood six-deep to watch. He received a standing ovation when he walked back to the dugout after the national anthem, and it was a funny moment when McCatty -- not Strasburg -- doffed his cap to acknowledge the cheers.
Among those in attendance was Strasburg's coach at San Diego State, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
Asked what he told the rookie before the game, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said he asked Strasburg the distance from the mound to home plate in the minors.
When Strasburg answered 60 feet, 6 inches, Riggleman said: "You've got a good chance -- because that's what it is here, too."
Rodriguez, a 20-year big league veteran, was activated from the 15-day disabled list in time to catch the game.
"He knows what day it is," Riggleman said.