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Strasburg should bring fans to D.C.

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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So, it’s going to be June 4 ... Right?

“Mum’s the word,” one Nationals employee told me Tuesday.

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But look how the schedule lines up. That has to be the day ... doesn’t it?

“Most likely, it will be,” said another in the industry.

Well, good, if that is indeed the case. We are getting tired of waiting. How many prospects and has-beens must a phenom embarrass before he gets The Call?

Naturally, we are speaking about Stephen Strasburg. Tea leaf readers have divined that he will make his big-league debut in nine days, at Nationals Park against the Cincinnati Reds. He promises to be much more captivating than filibusters, the Redskins and other forms of entertainment in our nation’s capital.

And if this Strasburg Summer lives up to the billing, the afterglow could last for years.

Strasburg isn’t just the finest pitching prospect in the game. He is D.C.’s entrée to baseball relevance. Some of his appeal has to do with the fact that he is not the only talent on the come for a franchise that plodded through 100-loss seasons in each of the past two years.

The Nationals are currently a .500 team (23-23). And that’s about what they will be at the end of 162. But with Strasburg, the casual fan can be theirs.

At least, every fifth day.

“D.C. is an event town,” explained Mark Zuckerman, the former Washington Times beat writer who now blogs about the team at NatsInsider.com. “The Redskins are always a huge deal. For everyone else, it’s all about winning, creating some kind of buzz, turning the games into the place you’ve got to be.

“That’s something the Nationals haven’t really had over the last five years.”

Really, the team hasn’t been too watchable since 2005, when it finished 81-81 in a surprising debut season.

That will change soon.

Probably, hopefully, on June 4.

Strasburg went only five innings in most recent start, and not because he was injured. The Nationals are minding his pitches. It appears that he’s tapering, like an Olympic swimmer. And he has one more training lap on Saturday.

One need not be a stat geek or stopwatch-wielding scout to conclude that the 21-year-old Californian is sufficiently prepared for the major leagues. He is 6-1 with a 0.99 ERA in nine starts this season. Hitters have managed a .139 batting average.

Like your buddy told you at the last cookout: Looks good. Don’t overdo it.

“He’s ready to pitch in the big leagues,” outfielder Casper Wells said Wednesday.

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Wells is a Tigers prospect who currently plays for the Toledo Mud Hens. Since he hit a grand slam off Strasburg in the Arizona Fall League last year, and then an RBI single on Monday night, I will take his word for it.

A pro since 2005, Wells has had plenty of time to form opinions about opposing players and organizations. Asked about the Nationals, he said this: “Some good prospects, especially with their pitching. Once they come around to the major-league level, they’re going to be in contention soon – if not immediately.”

These are heady days along the Anacostia River. Consider the following events:

May 12: The Nats beat Francisco Rodriguez and the Mets, 6-4. Tyler Clippard, the exciting young reliever, earns his seventh win of the season.

May 17: Stud reliever Drew Storen reaches the majors, less than one year after the Nats selected him in the same first round as Strasburg. Storen strikes out Matt Holliday in his debut.

June 4 (we think): Strasburg debuts.

June 7 (we think): The Nats make Bryce Harper the No. 1 overall pick.

Yes, the majors’ worst team in ’09 is now perched comfortably on its own political capital.

“The timing of it has worked out so well for them,” Zuckerman said.

Somewhere, a baseball-loving journalism professor is clamoring for me to present the other side of the story. So here it is: Washington is 4-8 since the aforementioned victory over K-Rod. The team has been outscored by 22 runs this year, even with Ryan Zimmerman’s offensive exploits.

The Nationals aren’t better than the Phillies now. They probably won’t be better than the Phillies next season, either. But the contours of a contender are there.

By the end of the season, the Washington rotation could include Strasburg, John Lannan, the ageless Livan Hernandez and some combination of the disabled-list notables: Jason Marquis, Scott Olsen, Chien-Ming Wang and Jordan Zimmermann.

Stan Kasten, the team president, said last week that Wang could begin his minor-league rehabilitation assignment by July 1. That is significant. Wang, recovering from shoulder surgery, is only three years removed from back-to-back 19-win seasons with the Yankees.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Everyone is waiting on The Big Guy.

Two Fridays from now, many believe that Strasburg will be on a major-league mound. Some are putting their money on it.

Joellen Ferrer, a spokesperson for the ticket site StubHub.com, said the June 4 date is currently the highest-grossing Nationals game this season, outside of the opening week. Ferrer expects a spike in sales if and when the Nationals confirm the date.

Zuckerman, meanwhile, can expect an abrupt change in the most popular question he hears. He said he gets it three to five times per day, in a variety of settings: When is Strasburg going to debut? 

Soon, a different query will take its place: Now that they have Strasburg, just how good will the Nationals be?

Tagged: Nationals, Chien-Ming Wang

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