Stephen Strasburg. 21 years old. The most highly hyped prospect in baseball history, if one looks at the myriad vehicles for hype we have these days. Sure, he was scouted. He was written about by insiders and those with passing interest alike. His minor league starts were broadcast. He was blogged about. He was the subject of tweets across the country. None of that mattered though, for the record books. Last night did.
I arrived at the stadium a little over an hour before the first pitch was thrown. The atmosphere was nothing short of electrifying, if that description even does it justice. I had felt nothing like it at a sports game since going to the clinching games 5a and 5b of the 2008 World Series at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia (See, I can always bring it back to the Phillies). This was the second sold out game at Nationals Park I had been to, but the other was opening day this year, and that crowd was not exactly tilted heavily towards the hometown team. My friends and I settled into our seats to watch the fireworks begin.
(Photo courtesy of Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
The first three pitches to Pirates leadoff batter Andrew McCutchen clocked in at 97, 97, and 98 miles per hour. So that part of the hype was real enough. The umpires weren't calling too many strikes in that at bat or the next one of Neil Walker, but Strasburg still got outs, a sharp liner to short and a grounder to first. Then Lastings Milledge struck out swinging on a filthy curveball. The crowd was on notice.
Garrett Jones started the second striking out swinging on a 99 mph fastball. Delwyn Young followed swinging through another disgusting curve. Andy LaRoche deflated the crowd a bit with a single to right field, but Strasburg and the crowd came roaring back when Ronny Cedeno struck out swinging through a 89 mph changeup. Yes, you just read that correctly.
The third arrived, and Jason Jaramillo (former Phillies prospect) was utterly paralyzed striking out looking at a sick curveball. The Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens struck out swinging on a 98 mph fastball. Andrew McCutchen grounded out in his second at bat of the game to end the third, and end Strasburg's streak of six straight strikeouts (around Andy Laroche's single) going back to the first. Six strikeouts through three shutout innings. The excitement was building, and I was running out of adjectives to text people about the performance I was witnessing.
The fourth spelled trouble for Strasburg. He made three bad pitches, the last of which was a home run to Delwyn Young. fortunately he had gotten a double play ball right before that, so the damage was limited to two runs. Andy Laroche followed by popping out to end it, but the strikeouts had stopped, the runs had started, and the crowd was clearly concerned. Still, even if he got through just one more inning, with no more runs or strikeouts, that would have been quite the rookie performance.
The fifth began, and Strasburg looked as if the fourth inning never happened. Ronny Cedeno struck out swinging on yet another 99 mph fastball (no tiring out for this Strasburg guy), Jason Jaramillo weakly grounded out, and the pitcher was called out on strikes. The crowd knew that the momentum was becoming unstoppable.
The sixth inning arrived. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Lastings Milledge all came up to the plate. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Lastings Milledge all struck out swinging. 11 strikeouts now for the phenom.
With Strasburg's pitch count in the low 80s, it was unclear whether he would come in again for the seventh inning, after Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said earlier in the day that they would limit him to 75-100 pitches and he probably would not go more than six innings. He came right back out though. Garrett Jones reached a 2-2 count in a six pitch battle, then swung straight through the seventh, another incredible curve. Strikeout number 12. The crowd roared. Delwyn Young swung, looked, and swung again and was down on strikes, with the entire crowd on its feet, the fever pitch only increasing. Strikeout number 13. In the final at bat of the seventh inning, Andy LaRoche looked at a curveball that dropped in for a strike. He swung at an impossible to hit curveball. With the count 0-2 and the 14th strikeout at stake, the entire sold out crowd of over 40,000 shook the stadium, yelling "STEPHEN STRASBURG" in perfect unison. Andy LaRoche swung through yet another 99 mph fastball. The crowd exploded. All else is now history.
(Photo courtesy of Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
I cannot do justice in words to what witnessing this performance was truly like. You can read all about just why it was so historic from Jayson Stark's column on the game and all its stats, obscure and obscurer. All I know is that I saw a pitcher pitch, at the age of 21 and in his first major league game, as if he was one of the best pitchers in the game today. Indeed, Curt Schilling said that Strasburg would be one of the best pitchers in baseball immediately, a statement which met with more than a bit of skepticism when Schilling made it a little shy of a month ago. Now there is little doubt that Strasburg can be just that. Though it's premature to say that he will do so, after a few more games like last night's, it will be a matter of when, not if.