Strasburg tested, but wins debut in minors

Wherever Stephen Strasburg’s formidable right arm eventually takes him, record books – well, databases on the Web – will forever show his first professional win came April 11, 2010, in his minor league debut, at a stadium with a rollercoaster looming beyond right field, in this town of 50,000 nestled in the Allegheny Mountains.

Before consistently pitching in the 97-98 mph range over his five innings Sunday, before allowing four runs – one earned – and four hits, before striking out eight batters, Strasburg loped into the cramped visiting clubhouse at Blair County Ballpark.

“I’m just another guy on this team,” Strasburg insisted later. “We’re all out there tying to win a ballgame.”

Like other players for the Harrisburg Senators, the Washington Nationals’ entry in the Double-A Eastern League, Strasburg changed out of his jeans and polo shirt and began putting on his uniform. Like others, he grabbed a doughnut from the pregame spread, which also featured jars of peanut butter and jelly and a plastic container of cheese balls (“with real cheese,” the label promised).

Like others, he relaxed before his start against the Altoona Curve, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, by sitting on the fraternity-style green plaid couch and looking up at the lone, tiny TV. No flat screens here.

And like Harrisburg’s other starting pitchers, Strasburg took the mound for his first appearance of the season knowing he was on a pitch count, with no chance of more than 85 or 90 tosses.

“All of our starters are the same,” Harrisburg manager Randy Knorr explained before the game.

Well, not quite the same. Strasburg, of course, is the only one whose picture graced the special media credentials issued by the Curve.

“The other team is promoting him,” noted reliever Drew Storen, another top Nationals prospect who got the save Sunday.

Strasburg – it’s pronounced STROSS-burg – also is the only one who was the No. 1 overall pick in June’s amateur draft; the only one who signed a record $15.1 million, four-year contract in August; the only one whose minor league debut was aired on ESPNews; the only one expected to be a member of the Nationals’ rotation sometime this summer – and, the club hopes, far beyond.

“Guys wanted to face him. Everybody’s like, ‘We want to see what this guy’s about,”’ said Altoona catcher Kris Watts, who walked in both plate appearances against Strasburg.

With all eyes on him – and a more-than-capacity-crowd of 7,887 in attendance, including dozens sitting on a grass slope behind left field – Strasburg stretched and jogged in the outfield, more than a dozen cameras capturing his every move. When he made it to the mound, he pitched those five innings, throwing 82 pitches Sunday and helping Harrisburg beat Altoona 6-4.

“I definitely was super-excited,” Strasburg said in a monotone delivery that conveyed anything but excitement. “There was a lot of anticipation for this outing.”

For good measure, he even delivered an RBI double in Harrisburg’s three-run fifth inning for his first professional hit. He never got to bat in college and took a postgame dig at his San Diego State coach, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, saying: “I’m going to call Gwynn up tomorrow and let him have it.”

Strasburg’s first professional pitch was an up-and-in ball to Jim Negrych, who eventually popped out to the shortstop. He got the next batter to ground out before allowing an earned run in the first inning, then three unearned runs in the fourth, when Harrisburg made two errors.

“At the beginning, Stephen was a little anxious,” Knorr said, “and once he settled down, he threw the ball very well.”

Strasburg’s first inning got a little rough with two outs, when he allowed Alex Presley’s double off the base of the wall in right-center, followed by Miles Durham’s RBI single to center.

Presley said Strasburg displayed “three really good pitches: fastball, changeup and his breaking ball,” adding: “There’s so much to worry about.”

After walking Watts, Strasburg ended the inning by striking out Josh Harrison on a 97 mph fastball. He threw 24 pitches in the inning, 14 for strikes.

Not exactly living up to all the hype and hoopla, attention that prompted Harrisburg teammate Adam Fox to joke in the clubhouse beforehand, “It’s a national holiday today. It’s Stephen Strasburg Day.”

But Strasburg then dominated for a spell, striking out five of seven batters in one stretch. In the second inning, he threw eight pitches – and all eight were strikes. He showed off his big fastball, but also his slider-curve hybrid, which made one right-handed batter lean way back to get out of the way of a pitch that wound up bending back over the plate for a called strike.

What was it like to face Strasburg?

“Oh, the ball was coming out hot, for sure. He was definitely throwing the ball hard,” Watts said.

He compared Strasburg’s fastball to that of San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Watts faced in college.

A walk, two errors and two singles contributed to Altoona’s big fourth inning, before Strasburg finished strong, with a strikeout and two groundouts in the fifth, his last inning.

Back inside the visiting clubhouse afterward, Strasburg set down the lineup card and baseball he collected as souvenirs. He paused to autograph a glossy photo of himself pitching and a few baseballs thrust his way.

And then, finally, Strasburg once again was like any other member of the Harrisburg Senators. He grabbed a black, plastic plate and a black, plastic fork, loaded up with a barbecue sandwich, baked beans and cole slaw, then plopped himself down on that plaid couch to eat and watch the Masters golf tournament on that tiny TV, right in time to see Tiger Woods attempt a putt.

How long will it be until people gather around TVs to watch Strasburg perform on significant stages? How much longer will he ply his trade in outposts like this one – as opposed to big league cities such as New York and Philadelphia – and on diamonds like this one – as opposed to 40,000-plus stadiums such as Nationals Park, about 150 miles southeast from here?

“Obviously, as a baseball player, you’d like to say that you’re playing at the highest level possible. But right now, there’s things that I need to work on, and there’s things that I need to improve on, and I’m going to focus on that right now,” Strasburg said. “And hopefully my time comes soon.”