The first pitch of the game spun out of the young phenom's hand just under 100 miles per hour. It crossed home plate outside the strike zone. Over 40,000 people erupted in boos. I assumed they were booing the home plate umpire for daring to call a pitch thrown by Stephen Strasburg a ball. However, I also thought that, perhaps, some of the sellout crowd was booing Strasburg himself, for not living up to expectations. Wasn't he supposed to throw nothing but strikes?
In the end, that is pretty much what he did. In his first ever Major League start, the Washington Nationals rookie right hander struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates and did not walk a single one. Last night was the most electric sporting event I have ever attended. We haven't seen an athlete live up to and surpass such high expectations since LeBron James' rookie year in the NBA.
Before pitch number one was even thrown, a few hours before the scheduled start time, I arrived at Nationals Park to soak it all in. But also because I had nothing else to do yesterday. But I am going to focus on the 'soaking it in' aspect. I have been to a couple Nationals games prior to this event. I have even waited in the game day cheap seats line where they give away a couple hundred $5 tickets, one per person, no saving for friends. But yesterday was different. Around 2 in the afternoon, there were already people lined up outside the ticket booth waiting for theirs. Fortunately, I had bought my ticket online two weeks ago, so I was free to go to lunch. But witnessing 50 or so people leaning against a wall, knowing they are going to be waiting for over 3 hours, and not even knowing what time they had arrived, since it was clearly before me, was something new to Washington Nationals fandom, to say the least. By the time the front gates opened up for batting practice, roughly two and a half hours prior to the national anthem, I entered Nationals Park with a few thousand others. The line for the $5 seats had extended into the street and onto the opposing sidewalk. As I entered, I wondered if all those people would get their cheap ticket or if someone would be left without a chance to see Him. After I walked in, I quickly forgot about these people.
I made my way down to field level, after finding a row not guarded by a ticket usher. 15 feet away was the Baseball Tonight crew of Karl Ravech, Orel Hershiser, and my favorite baseball writer under 6 feet tall, Tim Kurkjian. I watched in fascination as seemingly normal people took picture after picture of three television personalities. Okay, Orel is a hall-of-famer. I guess I could even understand a quick shot of Tim, he is a hall of fame journalist. But does anyone need a picture of Karl Ravech?
Behind the Tonight crew, batting practice was taking place. Ross Ohlendorf walked by and people started yelling his name for an autograph. Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek were there as well, with similar results. For the uninitiated, these are three Pirates pitchers who would not be recognized by a single person, other than relatives, if they were shopping for groceries and weren't wearing their jersey. But with that jersey on, and with Strasburg Fever in the air, everyone was famous enough last night.
The National Anthem was performed by an (apparently) world renown saxophonist named Jaared. The crowd agreed with my skepticism by giving a gentle chuckle at the announcement. We were just trying to calm ourselves down before the night's festivities. And actually, the performance was pretty sweet. He even milked a bunch of notes because, you know, he's world renown.
Strasburg's first (and second) pitch summed up the Nats fans. Two balls, both thrown 98 miles per hour ended in resounding boos. They (and I) didn't come to see balls. Strasburg settled in and got comfortable. He then turned dominant and overpowering, rather quickly, I might add. After a first, loud out, he went on to strike out 14 batters in seven innings, including striking out the side in his last inning of work, and still throwing consistently 98-99 mph while doing so. After a Pirate got his timing down, speeding his bat up for the gas, Strasburg would drop the hammer, throwing an 82 mph curve, buckling knees and taking no prisoners. He touched 100 mph on one pitch and the crowd loved it, even though it wasn't a strike. They didn't care. Any time there were two strikes on a batter, the crowd would rise and cheer, as if it was the last out in the ninth and they were waiting to secure the victory. The Nationals fans, for one night at least, were just as excited to see their young gun secure another K.
He made one bad pitch all evening, which resulted in a two-run home run, and in fact, gave Pittsburgh the lead at the time. Good thing the rest of the Nats showed up yesterday as well, rallying to take the lead back and allowing Strasburg to get a W in his first career start.
After the last out was recorded by Matt Capps, my first inclination was to downgrade the starter's performance because of the opponent. It was, after all, the Pirates. But then I thought about it, and decided that doesn't matter. The Pirates are still a Major League lineup (no matter how 'barely' that may be.) And he was still throwing like he belonged, no matter who was holding a bat waiting for the pitch. I look forward to attending another Strasburg start, to see if he gets better as he learns, which seems scary for the rest of the national league I'm sure.
I have a couple of parting thoughts apart from the guest of honor. Adam Dunn's home run that gave the Nats back the lead was a monster of a shot. It went into the second deck in right field. The right fielder turned and jogged towards the wall just to make Jeff Karstens (the pitcher on the mound) feel better about it. But it was definitely one of those blasts were the outfielders don't need to move.
Also, Tyler Clippard's motion is something to behold. He was a former Yankee, but only pitched in a few games which I never witnessed, because if I did, I would have rememered. His motion is Tim Lincecum-esk. He wraps his right arm back towards the dirt before his release. It is really rather mesmerizing.
Lastly, Andrew McCutchen is the smallest professional athlete I have ever seen in my life. He is listed at 5-10 but there is no way he's taller than 5-8, with his shoes on.
By the way, when Strasburg departed, the big board flashed a stat saying he had set a Nats record. I assumed it was going to be the record for most strikeouts in a National's pitching debut. Or most K's for any Nationals rookie. But I had already been shortchanging him. Strasburg, in his first ever start, had set the club record for strikeouts in a game. Period.