We have liftoff: Strasburg shines in debut

VIERA, Fla. – And so it begins, Stephen Strasburg(notes) rocking and firing for the Washington Nationals, batters flailing, batters adjusting, Strasburg pitching out of a jam with an other-worldly fastball and physics-defying curveball.

Yes, we have liftoff. On Tuesday at Space Coast Stadium, so named because of its proximity to Cape Canaveral, the rookie with the rocket right arm took one small step toward the big leagues and one giant leap toward Nationals’ relevance, pitching two scoreless innings in his Grapefruit League debut against the Detroit Tigers.

Stephen Strasburg threw 15 of his 27 pitches for strikes and allowed two hits.
(Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Strasburg didn’t come close to his personal-best 103 mph, topping out at 98 and consistently hitting 97 from the windup and 95 from the stretch. Hey, it’s early. More important, he had four pitches working, recorded outs after falling behind in counts, and with two on and two out in the second inning got strike three looking on a wicked curve that began at batter Brent Dlugach’s(notes) hip and crossed the plate from an angle perpendicular to the third-base line. He also struck out one of the best hitters in baseball, Miguel Cabrera(notes), with a high four-seam fastball and induced several groundouts on two-seamers.

“His fastball was jumping,” Cabrera said. “He’s got a good chance for success in the big leagues.”

Strasburg threw only 15 strikes in 27 pitches but was most effective after falling behind. He will build to the 100-plus-mph radar readings and increase his pitch count every five days.

“The adrenaline is going, maybe my [delivery] is a click too fast and I’m not letting arm work as much,” he said. “Velocity isn’t everything. Big league hitters can hit a good plus-plus fastball over the heart of the plate. It’s all about location.”

Velocity is expected to mark Strasburg’s ascent. He’ll probably begin the season at Class-A Potomac because in April the weather in Virginia should be warmer than at Double-A Harrisburg or Triple-A Syracuse. Barring a major hiccup, he’ll rise through those levels by June and the Nats will call him up before the Fourth of July.

That’s not as splashy as handing him the ball on opening day, but this isn’t Joe Nuxhall, who made his debut at age 15, or David Clyde, the first pick of the 1973 draft who was in the big leagues that same season and out of baseball by 1979 with a grand total of 18 wins. Nationals brass vows to handle Strasburg smartly, avoiding the temptation to rush him while not treating him like a porcelain doll, either.

General manager Mike Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman want Strasburg to learn the nuances necessary to succeed, but they aren’t worried about him being crushed emotionally because he isn’t a child. Strasburg will turn 22 in July, was married a few months ago and has impressed teammates with his maturity. The pitcher he faced Tuesday, Rick Porcello, is six months younger, and Porcello was a tidy 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA last season for the Tigers.

Strasburg has faced uncommon scrutiny since he reported to camp. His first bullpen session, first time throwing against hitters, first intrasquad appearance, and now first Grapefruit League game were chronicled with the obsessiveness of parents charting a baby’s first steps. He knew the attention was coming and has tolerated it. “I can honestly say it’s not really earned, but it’s something you’ve got to deal with,” he said. “I haven’t proven anything at the pro level. I look at a lot of big league players on this team who haven’t had this attention. It’s kind of a shame but it’s out of my control and they know that.”

As game time approached, Strasburg kept to himself in the clubhouse, self-consciously repeating arm stretches. He put his glove on, pounding the pocket and examining the laces as if they were the most fascinating objects in the world. Anything to avoid eye contact. The pregame buffet was laid out and his butterflies were no match for carne asada, chicken, black beans and guacamole. He piled it all on a paper plate and topped it with a liberal scoop of sliced jalapeno peppers. Strasburg knows heat.

Nobody spoke to him, not even teammates. He might as well as had a perfect game going, and in one respect, he did. Strasburg, the first choice in the 2009 draft and beneficiary of a $15.1 million contract, the largest ever to a draft pick, is unspoiled and unsoiled. And until left-handed hitter Don Kelly slapped a 97-mph fastball into left field for a single with two out in the second, Strasburg had been untouched.

A crowd watches Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg warm up.
(Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

The next batter, Alex Avila, grounded a 95-mph fastball up the middle for a single and the first two pitches to Dlugach were balls. But then came two fastballs for strikes, then the careening curveball that ended Strasburg’s day with a flourish. Kelly, Avila and Dlugach aren’t exactly Murderer’s Row, but earlier Strasburg retired Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen on groundballs in addition to punching out Cabrera.

“Everything you would want to happen, happened,” Riggleman said. “He pitched from the stretch, threw his curve and changeup when behind in the count and competed. It was a good day for Stephen.”

Bumps await. Strasburg only needs to check the box score from a game played simultaneously 60 miles away to confirm that. Johan Santana of the New York Mets, perhaps the best pitcher in the National League, made his first start since shutting down in August because of elbow pain and was rocked for four runs in 1 2/3 innings. A big league pitching career, even one as glorious as Santana’s, is pocked with hardship.

For now, though, Strasburg’s only obstacle is himself.

“My adrenaline was going so much it didn’t even feel like I was breathing at all,” he said. “I remembered to keep things simple and go out there and have fun. That’s what all my family members have said and what all the guys in clubhouse have said. It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun.”

And once he stepped on the mound and the hype receded into the background, the fun began.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Tuesday, Mar 9, 2010