Keeping Score

Stephen Strasburg Makes a Sterling Pitching Debut

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So it looks like there’s now another reason to visit the nation’s capital besides monuments and museums. Skip the Smithsonian, go see Stephen Strasburg.

The Washington Nationals pitcher, who was the first overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, made his intensely-hyped debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night; he gave the sell-out crowd of 40,315 at Nationals Park, and a national television audience watching on the MLB Network – the regal Bob Costas called the game – an opening act they’ll never forget. Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates, one shy of the record for most Ks in a Major League debut, in seven innings as the Nats beat Pittsburgh 4-2.

The 21-year-old, goateed right-hander regularly hit the high-nineties on his fastball. On a few occasions, the radar-gun clocked his pitches at 100 miles-per- hour. Those numbers are no doubt intimidating, but Strasburg’s arsenal might be the most impressive aspect of his game. He also owns a deceptive change-up, and a curve that breaks like a wiffle ball in the wind. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman lifted the rookie after he tossed 94 pitches (65 of them were strikes, and Strasburg issued no walks). Like most expensive investments in today’s game –  Strasberg’s signed a four-year, $15.1 million deal with Washington last summer – Washington will baby its prized prospect, to the chagrin of fans who wonder, with good reason, whether his strikeout total could have reached the upper-teens.

Don’t book Strasburg’s trip to Cooperstown yet. He has pitched one big league game, and it was against the Pirates, who haven’t fielded a decent team since Dan Quayle was in office. Still, it’s nice to see an athlete actually exceed the hype thrust upon him. Over the past decade, two other athletes were similarly labeled as the next great ones: LeBron James and Sidney Crosby. And they’ve both performed better than anyone could have predicted.

So all Strasburg has to do is repeat this performance 30 times a year. And Bryce Harper, the 17-year-old phenom whom the Nationals selected with the top pick in this year’s draft, who is already generating comparisons to Mickey Mantle, has to hit 45 home runs as a rookie.

No sweat.