June 10, 2010
By David Driver
Used with permission
WASHINGTON — Stephen Strasburg has been the focus of much attention since the Washington Nationals selected him with the first pick in the 2009 draft.
When he finally debuted on Tuesday, the baseball world stopped to see what would happen in the battle of the two sub-500 teams.
Strasburg lived up to the hype.
The 2008 Olympian pitched seven innings and allowed only two earned runs, with 14 strikeouts and no walks as Washington won, 5-2, in front of a sellout crowd of more than 40,000. Strasburg, a right-hander, set a Nationals record for strikeouts in a game and became just the sixth pitcher to fan 14 batters with no walks in the history of the game. He fanned the last seven batters he faced against the Bucs.
“There were definitely a little bit of nerves,” Strasburg said after his Major League debut. “I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I was. When you have veterans in the clubhouse to really calm you down — I was throwing to a future Hall of Famer (catcher Ivan Rodriguez) — you just have trust your stuff and try to hit his glove. Things got a lot better as the game went on, and it just started clicking.”
The arrival of Strasburg turned Washington into the center of the baseball world.
“It was a special night for Washington,’’ said Washington manager Jim Riggleman, who grew up in Maryland watching the Washington Senators in the 1960s. “I hadn’t seen anything like it. The crowd really got into it.”
His next start will be Sunday in Cleveland’s Progressive Field and fans are gobbling up tickets to catch a glimpse of the pitching phenom.
But for those who knew Strasburg before he stepped on the mound on Tuesday, there were few surprises from the newest sensation in the Major Leagues. Especially from those who saw him up close a couple of summers ago at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
“I love Stephen Strasburg,’’ Eric Campbell, general manager of USA Baseball national teams, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from North Carolina, where he watched part of Strasburg’s debut on television. “Everything about him is super. He did everything we asked him to do. I watched part of it. My wife was sure thrilled. She could not keep her eyes off (the game). We are all excited.”
Strasburg was the only college player on Team USA’s 2008 Olympic team. His manager was Davey Johnson, now a senior advisor to Washington general manager Mike Rizzo. The hitting coach for the American team was Rick Eckstein, who is now the hitting coach for the Nationals.
Campbell first met Strasburg in 2007 when the pitcher was a guest at the USA trials prior to the Pan Am Games.
“A lot of credit goes to his parents and Rusty Filter, his pitching coach at San Diego State,” Campbell said. “But Stephen gets the lion’s share of it. He is a phenomenal person on and off the field.”
Now the rest of the country will get a chance to take notice.
Strasburg is slated to pitch every fifth day, not every fifth game, for the next few weeks, Riggleman said. A possible schedule for him, barring rainouts, etc., looks like this: at home June 18 against the White Sox, at home June 23 against the Royals, at Atlanta on June 28, at home July 3 against the Mets and at home July 8 against his hometown Padres.
There is no doubt Strasburg is looking forward to traveling to Major League ballparks with the Nationals but the young pitcher already has enjoyed his share of travels. He was with the team at tournaments in Europe and also went to China with the team as part of collegiate and Olympic teams in 2008.
In Beijing, he threw seven scoreless innings in a 7-0 victory against the Netherlands. His 11 strikeouts in that game were the third highest for a U.S. pitcher in the Olympic Games. He did not fare as well in the semifinals, pitching four innings and giving up two runs in an eventual 10–2 loss to Cuba. Still, he did come home with an Olympic bronze medal.
Major league players and fans learned first hand how good Strasburg was on Tuesday. Javier Lopez, a University of Virginia product who pitches for the Pirates, was impressed.
“He is pretty difficult to hit,” said Lopez, who grew up in northern Virginia. “He lived up to the billing, stuff-wise. He established himself early in the game. He was true to his word” as a big-time prospect.
Spin Williams, the former pitching coach for the Pirates, is now the minor league pitching coordinator for the Nationals and began working with Strasburg last August in Florida. He has been impressed with how Strasburg has handled the hype.
“It is good for baseball,’’ Williams said. “He has handled it well. He is a wonderful guy.”
With wonderful stuff on the mound, including a fastball near 100 mph, a mean slider and change up at “only” around 89.
“He has really, really good stuff,” said Williams, a member of the Iowa baseball coaches Hall of Fame. “He has a devastating change up. The biggest thing that impresses me is the command of his pitches.”
Now the rest of the world is discovering what they have known for some time.
“There is a buzz when he pitches,’’ Campbell said. “He has everyone’s attention. It is special event when he is on the mound.”