No mere mortal, Strasburg dominates in debut
The Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg’s pitch-by-pitch report in his debut. He threw 58 fastballs, 25 curveballs and 11 changeups and struck out 14.
|3||FB||98||K in play||Lineout|
|8||FB||99||K in play||Groundout|
|11||CB||83||K swing||K swing|
|17||FB||99||K swing||K swing|
|22||CB||83||K swing||K swing|
|25||FB||100||K in play||Single|
|30||CU||89||K swing||K swing|
|34||CB||83||K look||K look|
|38||FB||98||K swing||K swing|
|40||FB||98||K in play||Groundout|
|43||CB||82||K in play||Single|
|47||FB||96||K in play||Single|
|53||FB||96||K in play||Double play|
|55||CU||90||K in play||HR|
|56||FB||98||K in play||Popout|
|60||FB||99||K swing||K swing|
|64||CB||82||K in play||Groundout|
|70||FB||99||K look||K look|
|74||CU||91||K swing||K swing|
|77||FB||99||K swing||K swing|
|81||CU||92||K swing||K swing|
|88||CB||83||K swing||K swing|
|91||FB||99||K swing||K swing|
|94||FB||99||K swing||K swing|
WASHINGTON – The biggest event in the nation’s capital since President Obama’s inauguration finally came Tuesday night, and the guest of honor wanted no part of the hoopla. A rectangular block with televisions on each side sits in the middle of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse. Three were tuned in to the breathless anticipation of Stephen Strasburg’s(notes) major league debut. The fourth was on the Discovery Channel.
In front of the odd TV out sat Strasburg. As his teammates listened to the surfeit of buildup emanating in surround sound, he tried to focus on an episode of “Deadliest Catch.” It was entitled “Mortal Men.”
Over the next five hours, Strasburg showed he may very well not be one. In perhaps the best unveiling in baseball history, Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates and walked none over seven innings in a 5-2 victory. His 100-mph fastball dazzled, his 90-mph changeup dizzied and his breaking ball broke the Pirates’ will. No pitcher had ever struck out so many with so few pitches – 94 total, 65 of which were strikes – and thus went Strasburg’s first foray into record books that ought to familiarize themselves with his name.
In the Year of the Prospect – of Jason Heyward(notes) and his first-at-bat home run, of Mike Stanton(notes) and Buster Posey(notes) and Starlin Castro(notes) – no introduction matched Strasburg’s. He finished with seven consecutive strikeouts, each more impressive than the previous, punctuated by a 99-mph fastball through which Andy LaRoche(notes) swung feebly. Strasburg dipped his head and walked off to a standing ovation, and as he tried to process his night, all he could remember was the first pitch.
“Everything else was just such a blur,” Strasburg said. “At one point I lost track of how many innings I threw. It was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go out there and have fun.’ It’s amazing.
“It’s kind of like when you get married and everything, you kind of go into it wanting to really remember everything – and once it’s done, you can’t remember a single thing.”
The rest of the baseball world can’t forget it. The arrival of Strasburg came two years after he blew onto the national radar with a 23-strikeout performance as a sophomore at San Diego State. He thrived as a junior, went No. 1 in the draft to Washington, signed for $15.1 million, dominated in 11 minor league starts and graduated to set ablaze a sellout crowd of 40,315.
“We were pumped up,” Nationals closer Matt Capps(notes) said. “We were fans. Excited, high-fiving each other. Kind of in amazement. Seven innings, 14 strikeouts – you don’t see that very often. And the guy did it in his debut.”
Only 36 times had a player struck out at least 14 in seven or fewer innings. Just five had done it with zero walks. None was a rookie, certainly, though to be fair there never has been a rookie quite like Strasburg. Not Mark Prior(notes), not Kerry Wood(notes), not even Bob Feller – no one with amalgamation of polish, stuff and confidence, the sheer ability to make a group of major league hitters look so minor. Strasburg stepped onto the mound equipped with no scouting report or knowledge of the Pirates’ strengths and weaknesses. All he needed was his arm.
“You do what you do,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said, and what Strasburg does is breathtaking. He threw 58 fastballs. They averaged 97.8 mph. The hardest fastball in the major leagues from a starter, Ubaldo Jimenez’s,(notes) comes in at 96.6 mph.
Pirates swung through nine of those fastballs, along with five curveballs and four changeups. The one fly ball they hit into the outfield crept into the first row, a two-run home run by Delwyn Young(notes) off a changeup that didn’t fade quite enough. It was a mistake, one from which he learned: in his next at-bat against Young, Strasburg struck him out on three straight fastballs.
The last one steamed by at 99 mph, and the next batter was LaRoche, who watched an 83-mph curveball, whiffed at another and chased gas to conclude a 30-pitch stretch in which Strasburg threw 25 strikes and struck out seven in a row. Strasburg called his seventh “just another inning,” which was like calling the White House just another building.
“It’s not like you can sit on his curveball, because he’s got 100,” LaRoche said. “My last at-bat, I had seen a couple of hammers and then he blew that high one by me.”
The praise extended long and wide, and Strasburg tried as much to avoid the aftertaste as he did the initial swallow. He hugged his family and retreated to the Nationals’ clubhouse, where he mummified his arm in ice. He received three balls from the game and placed them in his locker. He sat and smiled and shook hands and tried to get the final remnants of a postgame shaving-cream pie out of his nostrils.
As low-key as Strasburg played, his beneficiaries celebrated. Nationals president Stan Kasten and Mike Rizzo exchanged a long hug outside of Strasburg’s news conference. Agent Scott Boras leaned against a wall, a satisfied grin plastered across his face. His college coach, Tony Gwynn(notes), beamed about how this was just the beginning. And Pudge Rodriguez nodded, his 2,321st game as a catcher just as memorable as his second, when the pitcher was Nolan Ryan.
“Everybody was impressed [with] what this kid did today,” Rodriguez said. “Attack the strike zone. Get ahead. Completely dominated.”
This was historic, the sort of game whose crescendo could easily have come with the first pitch. Only it kept building, Strasburg a willing architect, and by the end of the seventh inning the size of the accomplishment surpassed the standards of those who pegged this a special night long before it began.
“I had some high expectations, too, and I wasn’t afraid to tell people about it,” said Nationals reliever Drew Storen(notes), a minor league teammate of Strasburg’s. “He’s the only guy who lives up to the stories you hear. And he lived up to them and exceeded them.”
Amid the dissection of Strasburg’s night – of his 58 fastballs, 25 curveballs and 11 changeups; of his 18 swinging strikes, 24 looking, 13 foul and 10 in play; of his 12 strikeouts swinging, six via fastball, three on the changeup and three via breaking ball; and of pitch Nos. 21 and 25, both of which hit 100 mph – was the reality: All of this was well and good, sure, but the true test of Strasburg isn’t his first start. Just because he’s capable of greatness in no way makes him great. That takes years, elbow and shoulder willing.
For now, Strasburg happily coaxes from his arm the sort of entrance that invokes comparisons to J.R. Richard (15 strikeouts) and Juan Marichal (12 strikeouts in a one-hit shutout) and, yes, Prior, who struck out 10 in six innings. A stroke ended Richard’s career. Marichal went to the Hall of Fame. Prior hasn’t pitched since he was 25, derailed by arm injuries. The paths of excellence do not lead to the same place.
Which is why Strasburg tried so hard to distance himself from the extravaganza that had become his life. When “Mortal Men” ended, he flipped the channel and ended up on Animal Planet. The program featured various wildlife getting into precarious situations and was, like the previous one Strasburg watched, appropriately named for what would soon come: “Untamed and Uncut.”
The beast was finally let loose Tuesday night. There was no stopping him. And what a fascinating show it was.