June 9, 2010
On the Beat
It was nearly impossible to find the right words to describe Stephen Strasburg's major-league debut. To say the 21-year-old right-hander was dominant for the Nationals does not even begin to tell the story.
"I really can't put into words what we all just saw," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said after Strasburg led his team to a 5-2 victory over the Pirates on Wednesday night.
Even always-quotable Nationals center fielder Nyjer Morgan was pretty much stumped. "He's Jesus," Morgan said with a grin. "There's really nothing I can add beyond that. That pretty much says it all."
Morgan wasn't trying to be sacrilegious. Seemingly everyone else in baseball expects Strasburg to be the savior of a Nationals' franchise that is coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons and has been to the postseason just once in its 41-year history, in 1981, 23 years before they would be cease being the Les Expos de Montreal.
Strasburg certainly played the part of the savior on Wednesday night. His fastball reached speeds as high as 100 mph and was still at 99 when he threw his 94th and final pitch of the evening to end the seventh inning. His curveball dipped and darted like a wiffleball, causing hitters to bail out on pitches that wound up dissecting the plate. For kicks and giggles, he would tie batters in knots with 90-mph changeups.
Strasburg's final line jibed with the exceptional arsenal of pitches. He struck out a Nationals record 14 batters, did not walk a hitter all night, and allowed four hits, three coming in the fourth inning when Delwyn Young hit a two-run home run off a changeup.
While the Pirates are on an all-time record run of 17 consecutive losing seasons and have drawn the fewest walks in the major leagues this season, this was not a case of them playing the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters, though it would have been a fitting analogy considering the site of the game. Strasburg was simply overwhelming.
And Strasburg did it on a night when literally the entire baseball world was watching. ESPN's Baseball Tonight and MLB Network's MLB Tonight did their shows live from Nationals Park while nearly every major media outlet in the country had someone covering the game.
Just about anyone who has an interest in the game had been anticipating this night since the Nationals made Strasburg the first overall pick a year ago in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft and signed him to a draft-record $15.1 million contract. It is not hyperbole to say this was the most-anticipated debut in the game's history. There hasn't been one that comes close to matching it since David Clyde practically walked off the graduation stage at Westchester High School in Houston and started for the Rangers on June 27, 1973, beating the Twins at old Arlington Stadium.
"It was a World Series-like atmosphere," said Riggleman, who understands Washington baseball history better than most as he grew up near the District in Rockville, Maryland, rooting for the Senators. Riggleman knows that the nation's capital has not hosted the Fall Classic since 1933.
"It was very exciting, especially with everything that's been on him in the last several days, and really, the last several months. For him to respond like that, it made for a great night of baseball in Washington."
Actually, it was a great night for baseball everywhere. Seemingly every one of the 40,315 fans who jammed into the three-year-old stadium on the Anacostia River—triple the normal Tuesday night crowd at Nationals Park—knew it was a moment that transcended just one franchise and impacted the entire sport. The players also understood, including Matt Capps, who pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his 19th save.
"I grew up watching guys like Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan pitch, and I really think that Stephen will be in that category," Capps said. "To be able to just be a part of his first win was very special. I definitely thought about that when I was coming in from the bullpen. It's something everyone is going to remember for a long, long time."
Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez was not going to miss it. He sped up his rehabilitation from a lower back strain to come off the disabled list just hours before game time after getting through batting practice without pain. Now in his 20th season and the owner of the major-league record for career games caught with 2,321, Rodriguez was also left shaking his head and smiling at Strasburg's performance.
"I've caught a lot of guys in my career but this kid is unbelievable," Rodriguez said. "The most amazing thing to me is that he's around the plate and throws strikes with all his pitches. Most young pitchers like Stephen get behind in the count and have problems when they first come up. He just attacked the strike zone and threw breaking balls for strikes whenever he needed, same thing with his changeup and fastball. He's unbelievable, and he did great. I was honored to be a part of it."
Strasburg may have an electric arsenal of pitches, but his personality comes across as strictly acoustic. The San Diegan is well-spoken and articulate but he reveals little about his emotions. Yet, he was able to give a good analogy in summing up his thoughts on an incredible night when he struck out the most batters of anyone making their major-league debut since J.R. Richard punched out 15 for the Astros in 1971.
"Everything was such a blur," Strasburg said. "It's kind of like when you get married. You go into wanting to remember everything about the day but once it's done, you don't remember anything."
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who ceded his spot as the face of the franchise at some undetermined point in Tuesday night's game, had a close-up look at the proceedings. He had three hits, including one of three Nationals home runs off losing pitcher Jeff Karstens, as Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham went deep back-to-back in the sixth inning to put Washington ahead for good at 4-2. Zimmerman was able to put the night in perspective.
"You just don't see one night be about one person in our sport very often," Zimmerman said. "It's more of a team game. But this was all about Stephen Strasburg. There were a lot of people here and they were all here for one reason and it was him. You see it in the NBA with superstars like LeBron and Kobe but not in baseball. It was a unique and special night, something we were all privileged to be part of."
In 2007, the Diamondbacks' potential seemed limitless. They had won the National League West and reached the NLCS before being swept by the red-hot Rockies. The Diamondbacks seemed well positioned to keep winning with a core of young players. However, the Snakes are looking like they will make major changes between now and the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. Ownership feels it is time to shake up the roster and also whittled down the $80-million payroll of a club that is 23-36 and last in the National League West, 12 games behind the first-place Dodgers.
A source close to the Diamondbacks' situation believes that anyone could be available for trade with the exceptions of right fielder Justin Upton and injured catcher Miguel Montero. Their primary trade chip is expected to be right-hander Dan Haren in an attempt to fetch an attractive package of prospects. Others who could generate interest include right-hander Edwin Jackson, first baseman Adam LaRoche, second baseman Kelly Johnson, and center fielder Chris Young.
"This group for the most part has been together for about three seasons and they just haven't won collectively," Diamondbacks president and chief executive officer Derrick Hall told FoxSportsArizona.com. "Individually, they are very good players, but there just seems to be something missing. I think we have to make some player changes and start to build for the future,"
The Diamondbacks have a number of players who will have large salaries next season, including Haren ($12.75 million), Jackson ($8.75 million), third baseman Mark Reynolds ($5.33 million), and Young ($5.2 million). The Diamondbacks also hold a $7.5 million club option on LaRoche.
"You question why you continue on this pace with the same team and continue to add to the payroll without getting the winning results," Hall said. "Teams that typically go through that put on the brakes and go in a different direction. I don't know I'd label it as rebuilding, but one thing I am seriously considering is an adjustment in the budget."
The Mike Leake story is seemingly perfect. The Reds' rookie right-hander has gone 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA in his 11 starts after making the jump directly from Arizona State to the major leagues. He is 15th in the National League with 2.3 SNLVAR. However, there is one red flag concerning Leake: he has already thrown 73 innings in barely more than the first third of the season, putting him on a pace for more than 200 after he pitched 142 last year in college. The Reds would like to hold him to 180 innings for the season.
Reds manager Dusty Baker, though, gets a bit testy when Leake's innings count is concerned. Baker still stings from the criticism that he blew out pitching phenoms Mark Prior and Kerry Wood while managing the Cubs.
"Don't make a positive a negative," Baker said. "We try to get him out of there right around 100 (pitches). We try to skip him with off days. He's the guy who's the recipient of the extra day. We're very aware and conscious of it."
Leake has no complains with the way Baker has handled him and says he still feels very strong. Leake is averaging 99 pitches a start and has not exceeded 106.
"I think they're going about it very well," he said. "They're trying not to let me go over 100 pitches. It's very smart. They're trying to conserve me and let me go as long as I can this year."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets will get a chance to face two pitchers they are interested in trading for when they see Orioles right-hander Kevin Millwood and Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook in the next week. … White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski becomes a 10-and-5 player next Monday, meaning he will have 10 full years in the major leagues, including five with the same club, which will give him the right to veto any trade. However, Pierzynski is likely to approve a trade to a contender if the White Sox don't climb into the American League Central race soon. … Mike Carp, called up from Triple-A Tacoma this week, will get every chance to beat out Casey Kotchman as the Mariners' first baseman. … Jeff Clement has lost the majority of playing time at first base with the Pirates and now is on the brink of being sent to the minors, with Jose Tabata being called up from Triple-A Indianapolis to play left field, while current left fielder Lasting Milledge shifts to right field and right fielder Garrett Jones moves to first base. … The Twins are looking into making modifications to the 46-foot-high sign of Paul and Minnie shaking hands beyond the center-field fence at Target Field because some hitters have complained of problems with glare.
Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):