Jun 9, 2010, 4:25 AM EDT
There was no way Stephen Strasburg could live up to the hype, just no way. So much attention had been thrust upon the 21-year-old’s broad shoulders, so much expectation that was beyond the bounds of realism, you just knew he would leave you disappointed when you left Nationals Park tonight.
How Strasburg managed to take the mound under the weight of those outrageous expectations, block out the 40,315 fans who cheered his every move and the 200 media members who chronicled his every move and exceed those expectations by a factor of 50 … well, the sport of baseball may never see anything like this again.
Shoot, the sport had never seen anything like this before tonight. Perhaps the 15-strikeout debuts of the Dodgers’ Karl Spooner in 1954 and the Astros’ J.R. Richard in 1971 technically surpassed this. But both of those guys pitched the complete nine innings. And both walked at least one batter.
Strasburg struck out 14, didn’t walk a batter and incredibly didn’t throw one bad pitch. (That two-run homer by Delwyn Young in the fourth? It came on a 90 mph changeup that was down and away, excellent placement.)
No pitcher in the history of this sport had ever recorded more than 10 strikeouts without walking a batter in his big-league debut. No one. And no player in the history of this sport, regardless of position, had ever had the spotlight shining so brightly on him for his major-league debut. No one.
Strasburg managed to do the impossible. He overshot the highest level of expectation by so much, the scoreboard crew didn’t know what to do. Their strikeout meter only went up to 12. By the seventh inning, they had to make the thing read: “12+KK”.
Strasburg was so good, he left grown men speechless.
“I don’t know how you pitch any better,” Adam Dunn said, later adding: “He pitched probably the best game I’ve seen pitched.”
Ryan Zimmerman: “I don’t think you could write it much better.”
Jim Riggleman: “I really can’t put it into words.”
I don’t think anyone who was here tonight will be able to completely grasp what we witnessed for a long time. It may take years, once Strasburg’s career has been fully defined, before we can really appreciate this, even though everyone in attendance tonight understood this was more than just a ballgame.
“It was different,” Josh Willingham said. “You appreciate it. I know in my brief career, I haven’t played in front of an atmosphere like that before. It was really cool to me.”
About that atmosphere. “Electric” only begins to describe it. Not once the Nationals’ five-plus years of existence had a crowd been THIS into a ballgame. Not on Opening Night at RFK Stadium in 2005. Not during the 10-game winning streak that summer. Not on Opening Night at Nationals Park in 2008.
Tonight was entirely about baseball, and years down the road, we may very well look back at this as the night Washington finally became a baseball town. For the first time since this team arrived, fans didn’t have to be told when to cheer. They beat the scoreboard operators to it.
They cheered when Strasburg emerged from the dugout at 6:25 p.m. to begin stretching. They cheered when he departed from the bullpen at 7 p.m. They cheered when the PA announcer said his name for the first time. They cheered when he struck out his first batter. And they cheered every time he got two strikes on a batter.
“Really,” Willingham pointed out, “they cheered every pitch.”
Through it all, Strasburg was mostly oblivious to the scene around him. He made a point to soak it all in while he stretched in right field, but as he said, “Once they said, ‘Play ball,’ it was go time.”
“The only thing I really remember was the first pitch,” he said. “It was a ball inside. Everything else was kind of a blur.”
The Pirates could probably say the same thing about every one of the 94 pitches they saw from Strasburg. They never had a chance.
The crowd soaked in every single moment of it. How anyone could have left the ballpark at night’s end with anything other than a smile on his or her face is beyond me. And how anyone who watched this, either in person or on TV, couldn’t immediately want to come back out and see Strasburg pitch again is beyond me as well.
I figured tonight would be a one-time occurrence. Sure, there would be buzz every time Strasburg pitched, but the bump in attendance would be nominal. Tonight, though, Strasburg ensured that every single one of his starts will be an event, a rock concert. If he doesn’t draw an average of at least 35,000 to the rest of his outings this season, I’ll be stunned.
Of course, none of his future starts will ever compare to this. The scene will never be the same, the anticipation so high, the profound sense of wonderment and then amazement permeating the entire ballpark.
Every one of us here will carry a mental photograph of some moment from this game with us forever. Strasburg’s first pitch. His first strikeout. His last strikeout. His curtain call.
Somehow, some way, Stephen Strasburg managed to leave us all breathless.
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