WASHINGTON (AP) — The phenom preparing to make his major league debut here had overwhelmed lower-level competition, throwing 75 consecutive scoreless innings while striking out 166 in 11 games.
More than a century ago, a ballyhooed rookie coming to pitch in the nation's capital was quite a thing, too.
"No youngster that has broken into fast company in recent years is attracting as much attention as Walter Johnson ... the baseball world will watch his debut into fast company with a great deal of interest," the Washington Post reported in July 1907.
Those words applied equally today to Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who made his major league debut Tuesday night with a masterful, 14-strikeout performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates before a frenzied sold-out crowd.
Both Johnson and Strasburg gave up two runs in their first games — with Johnson going eight innings in a 3-2 loss, Strasburg went seven in his 5-2 victory. But Strasburg was far more dominating, nearly quintupling Johnson's three strikeouts.
"Turns out, he's 4½ times better than Walter," quipped Johnson's 64-year-old grandson, Henry W. Thomas, in an interview at Nationals Park after Strasburg left the game. "Fantastic. What a great performance."
Johnson would eventually turn into a strikeout machine, setting the all-time record of 3,508, later broken by Nolan Ryan. Thomas, author of the biography, "Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train," said that Strasburg has the potential to rival his grandfather.
"Sure, he just has to do it for 15 years," he said, sitting just a short walk from a mural of Walter Johnson. "I'm not sure I've ever seen such a dominating performance. And this is the guy's first game!"
Before his debut, Strasburg, 21, crushed minor league opponents, going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA, 65 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 55 1-3 innings, while Johnson, then 19, amassed his dominating numbers in the semipro Idaho State League.
Like Johnson before him, Strasburg joins a Washington baseball franchise seeking its first winning season. The old Washington Nationals — aka the Senators — had posted six consecutive losing seasons in the American League. The new version, which plays in the National League, has yet to play over .500 in five seasons since moving here from Montreal.
The old Nats didn't break in Johnson slowly. On Aug. 2, 1907, they threw him out against the Detroit Tigers, that season's eventual pennant winners, and their star player, Ty Cobb, considered by some the greatest to ever play the game. While a radar gun Tuesday chronicled Strasburg's 100 mph heat, Cobb provided a testimonial of Johnson's prowess.
"I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it," he wrote in his autobiography. "The thing just hissed with danger."
"There was only one answer left to his incredible, overpowering speed," Cobb wrote. "We bunted. Sure enough, the boy hadn't handled many bunts."
Cobb reached on one in the second inning, then raced to third on another bunt before scoring on a sacrifice fly, to put Johnson in an early 1-0 hole.
Washington tied it in the sixth, but Detroit retook the lead in the eighth on a solo home run by Sam Crawford. Johnson was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the frame, and the teams traded runs in the ninth, giving the Tigers the one-run victory. The rookie had been impressive in the loss: giving up six hits and one walk (compared to four hits and no walks for Strasburg).
"Scrambling all the way, we finally beat him, 3-2, but every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark," Cobb recalled.
Newspaper coverage of his performance sounded a lot like what people say today about Strasburg, with the Post gushing about Johnson's "wonderful speed, perfect control, and deceptive curve, not to speak of his spitball." OK, scratch the spitball, which has long been banned by baseball.
Johnson, known as the "Big Train," continued to pitch without much run support that rookie season, going 5-9 despite a 1.88 ERA. In 1909, he actually lost 25 games despite a slim 2.22 ERA. But by end of his career two decades later, the Hall-of-Famer had won more games — 417 — than anyone besides Cy Young. He threw a record 110 shutouts, and even saved 34 out of the bullpen.
In its coverage of that first game, a Post headline screamed, "JOHNSON A REAL PHENOM." In the long run, perhaps the ultimate test for the new phenom: Will there one day be a Stephen Strasburg High School, to battle teams from suburban Maryland's Walter Johnson High School?
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frederic J. Frommer is the author of the book, "The Washington Nationals 1859 to Today: The Story of Baseball in the Nation's Capital," (Taylor Trade)