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Strasburg makes striking debut with Nats

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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WASHINGTON, D.C.

John Smoltz, 43, was as giddy as a schoolboy.

“He super-exceeded the unexceedable,” Smoltz said in a television interview after calling Stephen Strasburg’s outrageous debut for the MLB Network.

Smoltz, upon finishing the interview, bumped into Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn.

“Wow, what a fun game to do,” Smoltz said. “I had goosebumps. That was unreal.”

“And he’s a good dude, which makes it so much better,” Dunn replied.

 


 

Michael Morse called it.

Before the game, the Nationals’ utility man told me, “He could strike out everyone – everyone.”

Morse went on to explain that he had played right field behind Strasburg while on a rehabilitation assignment at Triple A – and just stood at his position watching as Strasburg mowed down one hitter after another.

“He looked like he could strike ‘em all out if he wanted to,” Morse said. “I even told him that. 'Why don’t you strike ‘em all out? Do it for fun?'”

Strasburg, nicknamed “Jeezus” by his Nationals’ teammates, just laughed, evidently saving himself for his major-league debut.

He didn’t strike out everyone. He didn’t walk on water.

In seven innings, he merely struck out 14 and walked none.

“I knew he was getting 10-plus strikeouts – I told you that!” Morse called to me after the game, grinning broadly.

 


 

The 14 strikeouts were a franchise record.

Stephen Strasburg was subjected to the traditional Nats postgame celebration after his debut. Greg Fiume

Strasburg, 21, also tied a team record for consecutive strikeouts by striking out his final seven hitters, the last on a 99 mph fastball.

Yes, the Nats have been in existence only since 2005. Yes, Strasburg’s opponent was the Quadruple-A Pirates.

But really, would even the Yankees have hit Strasburg on Tuesday night?

Fourteen strikeouts in 94 pitches – it’s not easy to do. Strasburg threw only 38 pitches in his final three innings, 31 for strikes – and got eight of his nine outs on strikeouts.

Every hitter in the Pirates’ lineup struck out at least once. Strasburg went to three-ball counts only three times — and even struck out Garrett Jones to lead off the second inning after falling behind, 3-0.

Strasburg, in his postgame news conference, said that the evening reminded him of his 23-strikeout performance for San Diego State against Utah in April 2008.

He said it casually, too, as if such performances are practically routine.

Here’s the best part:

The Nationals record strikeouts with electronic K's on a scoreboard in center field. Strasburg already has rendered that board obsolete.

“I learned something tonight,” Nats president Stan Kasten said. “Our scoreboard only goes up to 12 strikeouts. Why would I have needed to know that before tonight?”

 


 

On this night, a star – and maybe a franchise – was born.

The Nats have been largely an afterthought in their early years in Washington, piling up losing records, drawing minuscule local TV ratings.

With Strasburg, everything changes.

The crowd of 40,315 was electric from the moment Strasburg emerged from the dugout for his warmup 45 minutes before game time.

Once the game began, the fans were into every pitch, groaning with every ball, cheering with every strike, chanting, “Let’s Go Strasburg!” in his final inning.

“It was a great atmosphere, pretty impressive in the sport of baseball for something like that to happen for one guy,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It was something I’ve never seen it before. You usually see it in the NBA, something like that. Never in baseball.”

One guy dominating a game?

“One guy bringing that many people out,” Zimmerman explained. “Everyone wants to see LeBron or Dwyane Wade. It’s different in baseball – it’s a team thing. But being a starting pitcher, it’s his game. A lot of people came out to watch. He didn’t let ‘em down.”

 


 

After six innings, Strasburg had thrown 81 pitches. As Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said later, he was in “an in-between area.”

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The pitch-count police were lurking.

“He could have gone 195 tonight, I think,” Riggleman said. “We’ll make sure we won’t do that.”

Smoltz, though, said that Strasburg is no ordinary young pitcher, needing to be handled like a priceless work of art.

“He’s going to be a challenge for Riggleman and (pitching coach) Steve McCatty,” Smoltz said. “He can go 115-120 with no problem.”

Most young pitchers, though, generally are limited to the 90-to-100 range.

“I look for different things,” Smoltz said, speaking as a former pitcher. “His mechanical presence – he can repeat (his delivery) time and time again. He will be in the best position to throw (more) pitches more times than not.”

On Tuesday night, Riggleman said that the Nats wanted Strasburg to throw around 90 pitches. The manager specifically was worried about the hitters who were lined up to face Strasburg in the seventh inning.

• Jones, who would see a team-high 20 pitches in three at-bats;

• Delwyn Young, who had a two-out, two-run homer in the fourth off a 1-0 changeup, and

Andy LaRoche, who had lined a single with two outs in the second for the Pirates’ first hit of the game.

“I wasn’t going to let him struggle if anything happened,” Riggleman said.

The manager had right-handers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard ready, but Strasburg didn’t need the help.

He struck out Jones on seven pitches, Young on three and LaRoche on three.

“Unbelievable stuff,” Nationals left fielder Josh Willingham said. “Stuff I’ve never seen before.”

 


 

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, who came off the disabled list to catch Strasburg on Tuesday night, rattled off the names of elite pitchers he has caught in his 20-year career.

Nolan Ryan. Justin Verlander. Josh Beckett. A.J. Burnett. Kevin Brown.

Strasburg?

“This kid is unbelievable,” Rodriguez said afterward. “The most amazing thing to me is that he was around the plate. He throws strikes. He’s always in the strike zone.

“Guys that young get behind in the count. He didn’t do that. He attacked the strike zone. Pretty much all the breaking balls he threw, he threw for strikes.”

Strasburg fell behind three of his first four hitters, but settled down quickly, getting ahead of 15 of his final 20.

“He locates. He locates his pitches. He’s able to locate every single pitch he throws,” Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said.

 


 

Two final vignettes:

Dunn likes to joke with his teammates during games, keep things light. So, after Strasburg allowed Young’s homer, Dunn immediately tried to change the subject.

He approached Strasburg in the dugout and asked for some “dip” – chewing tobacco.

“Oh gosh, it’s in my locker,” Strasburg replied.

Morse had his own chuckle.

After Strasburg left the game, Morse asked him, “How do you feel?”

“I’m starting to feel it,” Strasburg replied.

Morse, dumbfounded, said, “You’re just warming up?”

That’s right. That’s what makes this so exciting.

Strasburg is indeed just warming up.

Tagged: Nationals, Pirates, Adam Dunn, Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, Garrett Jones, Stephen Strasburg

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