06/09/10 1:06 AM ET
Bodley: Tip of the Strasburg
Phenom better than advertised in sizzling debut
By Hal Bodley / MLB.com
It was as if the mass of humanity at Nationals Park took a deep breath and exhaled all at once on this magnificent evening. LaRoche swung and missed as Stephen Strasburg's rocket of a fastball whizzed by at 98 miles an hour.
Then, with one thunderous outburst that rattled dishes in Anacostia, the long and anxiously anticipated Major League debut for the Washington Nationals 21-year-old pitching phenom was complete.
Strasburg was even better on Tuesday night than the enormous buildup he'd received since he became the Nationals' No. 1 Draft pick a year ago and signed that $15.1 million contract. He was amazing.
When Pittsburgh's LaRoche merely swatted helplessly at Strasburg's final pitch of the energized night he became the right-hander's 14th strikeout victim. The San Diego State product struck out the last seven Pirates he faced and eight of the last nine. He used just 94 pitches to strike out 14 batters.
His only blemish to an otherwise unbelievable seven-inning performance was Delwyn Young's two-run homer in the fourth inning, one of just four hits -- three in that inning -- Strasburg allowed.
The Nationals, propelled by Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham home runs, disposed of the Pirates, 5-2, to present Strasburg with his first Major League victory.
As I watched and chronicled the afternoon's events leading to Strasburg's first pitch -- a ball to the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen -- at 7:06 p.m. ET, defining what a historic event like this means to an ailing franchise is difficult.
I sat with principal owner Mark Lerner at a White House dinner a few years ago. He talked about building the franchise from the ground up and how, to Washington sports fans, this was more than just baseball.
Tuesday afternoon, four hours prior to the first pitch, Lerner walked over to Strasburg's locker, offered encouragement and asked about pressure.
"He said not to worry about that," Lerner said later.
Team president Stan Kasten, giddy with excitement, made the rounds hours before the game, spewing the Nationals' party line about taking steps to become competitive in the tough National League East.
Manager Jim Riggleman insisted before the game he would be under no extra pressure with Strasburg on the mound. When it was over, Riggleman confessed this will be one of the most important memories of his career, a moment that is certain to gain even more significance in years to come.
There were only two World Series appearances in the first 71 years of Major League baseball in Washington. The original Senators became the Minnesota Twins and the expansion Senators became the Texas Rangers. Thirty-three years later, the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals, a new franchise desperately out to prove baseball can succeed in our nation's capital.
It may be unfair to anoint this young pitcher who performed so well on Tuesday night as a savior.
But for a little over two hours the euphoria that settled over this state-of-the-art venue left the long suffering baseball fans with that feeling. And when the Nationals flashed the announcement on the outfield video board reminding their fans they've selected another prodigy, 17-year-old Bryce Harper, as the overall No. 1 choice in this year's Draft, there was even more reason for hope.
Yes, it was just one night, one game, one victory.
But for a franchise with such a dark history, not to mention the fact these Nationals lost a hundred games each of the last two seasons, could June 8, 2010, possibly be a new beginning, built on the golden arm of a young man nicknamed Jesus?
"It's like I talked to a couple of players on the bench," Riggleman reasoned. "We can't expect to have this many people here until we earn it. But with what the Lerner family, [general manager] Mike Rizzo and Stan Kasten have done to make these kinds of acquisitions, the players we are getting here, it's starting to show results. This is the type of night you earn to have some of them come back."
Most strikeouts in MLB debut
|12||Steve Woodard||Brewers||7/28/1997||Blue Jays|
Strasburg walked off the field to a standing ovation after LaRoche went down. The public address announcer said something about congratulating the young pitcher, who after hesitation, came out of the dugout and tipped his cap to the fans.
When LaRoche swung and missed for No. 14, Strasburg said "it definitely brought back memories of my 23-strikeout game at San Diego. The adrenaline was definitely flowing through. I was going to throw the ball as hard as I could."
Thirty minutes after the game, Strasburg had received the customary shaving-cream pie in the face, star-of-the-game interviews and hugs and kisses from his parents, wife and friends.
Yes, he said, there was a trace of nervousness during the afternoon.
"There definitely were some nerves, but I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I was," he said. "When you have veterans in the clubhouse like we do, they really calmed down."
But with all the buildup, hype and the importance placed on his first start for this franchise, he was asked if he really thought the first night would turn out so well.
"I think anything is possible, but I didn't have any expectations going into the game. I didn't know how it was going to be," he said. "I just wanted to go out there, soak it all in and enjoy it. It's definitely icing on the cake to pitch well and get a win."
And finally, he was asked what he'll remember about this historic night.
"It was such a blur," he said. "At one point I lost track of how many innings I'd thrown.
"It's amazing, kinda like when you get married. You go into it wanting to really remember everything and once it's done you can't remember a single thing."
Washington baseball fans will remember this night for a long time.
It could be the game and the pitcher that pointed the Nationals in a different direction.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.