You pretty much can tell it's not a normal day in the Eastern League when an auxiliary press box needs to be utilized to seat all the overflowing media, then the winning pitcher holds a post-game press conference in a room jammed with television cameras. Stephen Strasburg made his much-anticipated professional debut Sunday afternoon at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona, and it was quite the event.
Strasburg, the first pick in the last year's first-year player draft by the Nationals and considered one of the greatest pitching prospects ever, went five innings for the win as Class AA Harrisburg beat Altoona, a Pirates' affiliate, 6-4. Strasburg allowed four runs, only one earned, and four hits while walking two and striking out eight. He threw 83 pitches, 56 for strikes, and even hit a double to the base of the wall in right field in the fifth inning off left-hander Rudy Owens, the Pirates' minor-league pitcher of the year last season.
Strasburg left with Harrisburg trailing 4-3, but the Senators scored twice in the top of the sixth to take the lead and make him the pitcher of record.
"It was definitely exciting," Strasburg said. "I didn't pitch great, but I was happy to keep the team in the game and give us a chance to win. We had lost our first three games of the season, so the biggest thing for me was to just to go out and try to help us win a game."
The team-first attitude is nice, but one can be certain that the 7,887 fans who jammed into the scenic ballpark nestled into a hillside and bordered along the right-field fence by the Skyliner rollercoaster from adjacent Lakemont Park won't remember who won or lost. They were there to see Strasburg pitch, and the rest of the world saw it, too, as ESPN streamed the game online while cutting away regularly on ESPNews.
Strasburg showed why the Nationals gave him a draft-record $15.1-million contract, as his fastball consistently sat in the 96-97 mph range and touched 99. He also threw a number of curveballs that seem to defy the law of physics and complemented the hard stuff with a changeup that needs work but was effective enough to usually keep hitters off balance.
"He wasn't at his best," said a scout who had also watched Strasburg pitch in college and in spring training this year. "But he was good enough. He's only to get better with more experience. This is just the tip of the iceberg."