- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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The gates at Nationals Park will open to fans Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. ET, an hour early, for reasons as symbolic as they are practical. Tuesday night at 7:05, the hype will end and reality will begin, reality in the form of a 21-year-old right-hander with a 95-98 mph fastball, a power curveball at 82-84 mph, a changeup with split action and a mean streak within him as wide as home plate. On Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg will finally make his major league debut.
"Have you ever seen anything like this?" said Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten. "I've never been through this before, no one has. There aren't enough hours in the day to handle every media request. But we have not allowed this insane amount of attention to affect his life or development."
How many times was Kasten asked about the date of Strasburg's debut? Thousands? "Oh, no, way more than that," he said, laughing. "The aura, anticipation and mystery have brought more than any promotion could."
This might be the grandest debut since the major league draft began in 1965. There have been 187 media credentials issued, which is nearly as many as are issued for a World Series game. Media members from all over the country will be attending, which is rare these days. There will be a sellout crowd against the Pittsburgh Pirates on a night that otherwise would have drawn perhaps 17,000 fans to Nationals Park.
Strasburg is scheduled to throw roughly 90 pitches, and there is little chance he will go past six innings, assuming he doesn't get knocked out before that. The plan is for Strasburg to start every fifth day, and pitching every fifth day will allow him to pitch more games at home than on the road: Nationals ownership naturally wants to fill its ballpark as often as possible. The plan is to get Strasburg an extra day's rest, if he needs it, around the All-Star break. The plan is to get him 100 innings pitched in the major leagues this season, and have him pitch through September to understand what it's like to pitch that deep into the calendar year. If the last year and a half is any indication, there is simply no way Strasburg will go back to the minor leagues. He appears ready to pitch in the majors.
"He was ready in spring training," one Nationals player said.
"He was ready at San Diego State," one college coach said.
Strasburg tore through the minor leagues with Harrisburg (Double-A) and Syracuse (Triple-A). He went a combined 7-2 in 11 starts with a 1.30 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 13 walks in 55 1/3 innings; during one stretch of 59 batters, only four got a hit. He threw 785 pitches, few of which were centered by any of the hitters. After Strasburg's last start at Triple-A, Ken Oberfell, the manager for Buffalo (the Mets' Triple-A team), asked, "Why is he here?"
"I saw him four times, and each time, it was a joke; it was a man against boys," one scout said. "The hitters had no chance. His stuff is tremendous, and he holds runners, he's quick to the plate, he fields his position and he can hit. I saw him bunt with runners at first and second. The runner on second didn't get a good jump, and was forced at third on the bunt. Strasburg was pissed. Here's a guy who got a $15 million contract, and he's pissed that he didn't move a guy up on a bunt. That showed me about his competitive nature. He's got everything he needs. After his third start at Double-A, he was ready for the big leagues."
Strasburg is used to dominating, and is used to the attention that comes with his incredible talent. Every time he pitched his senior year at San Diego State, scouts were everywhere. A crowd also formed around him for his first throwing session in spring training. "Did you see how the ball came out of his hand?" Washington pitching coach Steve McCatty said repeatedly to a Nationals executive that day.
Every start Strasburg made in the minor leagues was an event, none bigger than his first start at Syracuse, when the Chiefs drew more than 13,000 fans, the largest crowd in the 130-year history of Alliance Bank Stadium.
I will have no great words of wisdom for [Stephen Strasburg]. I'll just ask him how far home plate was from the pitching rubber at Syracuse, and he'll say, '60 feet, 6 inches,' and I'll say, 'Great, because that's how far it is here in the big leagues.'
”-- Nationals manager Jim Riggleman
But Tuesday night will be different. This is the big leagues. He has the potential to be overwhelmed here. It will be a madhouse, something unlike he -- or anyone -- has ever seen.
"I will have no great words of wisdom for him," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. "I'll just ask him how far home plate was from the pitching rubber at Syracuse, and he'll say, '60 feet, 6 inches,' and I'll say, 'Great, because that's how far it is here in the big leagues.'"
Strasburg will benefit from having Riggleman as his manager because Riggleman was Kerry Wood's manager when Wood made his major league debut at age 20 for the Cubs in 1998. But the circumstances were much different then. "[Wood] was younger than Strasburg is now, and he had already pitched in the minor leagues," said Riggleman. "We weren't clamoring to bring him up. We were in the middle of the pennant race when he came up. We couldn't baby him as much as we would've liked because we were trying to make the playoffs."
Strasburg has also benefited from having Davey Johnson as a senior adviser for the Nationals. Johnson, who was Strasburg's manager on the 2008 Olympic team, was also the manager of the Mets when they brought pitching prodigy Dwight Gooden to the big leagues in 1984 at age 19.
"They [Mets management] were so worried because we had Tim Leary the year before, he made his major league debut in Chicago in the cold, and he blew out his arm," Johnson said. "I told our guys, 'Don't worry, don't worry, I'll protect [Gooden].' The first start he made was in Houston indoors at 70 degrees. He threw five great innings. The rest is history. I told them, 'That stuff will play at any level.' The same is true with Stephen Strasburg."
The Nationals have protected Strasburg as much as they can from the hype. And he has not gotten caught up in it, either. In spring training, he walked silently through the clubhouse, like an A-ball pitcher with no chance of ever getting to the big leagues. He knew his place, and was deeply respectful of the other players around him, saying several times of the attention he received, "I haven't done anything yet."
In a TV interview with ESPN this spring, when asked about the hype, Strasburg said with an embarrassed look, "It's pretty funny. Today [Nationals center fielder] Nyjer Morgan called me Jesus." Strasburg laughed when teammate and fellow pitcher John Lannan said, "One day, he just appeared."
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, the man most responsible for drafting and protecting Strasburg, was asked if Strasburg was too deferential, too respectful, and might not be willing to someday -- perhaps Opening Day next year -- take his rightful place as the ace of the staff. Rizzo, without hesitation, said, "No." Translation: When Strasburg arrives in Washington, he will say all the right things, he will talk about how Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis are the veterans of the staff, and he is there to fit in and try to help the team win. But when he gets on the mound, he believes that he's a great pitcher, and no one can hit him -- the attitude that all great pitchers always have, and must have.
"[Marquis] called me this spring to tell me about this kid," said the Giants' Mark DeRosa. "He said, 'Remember when I went to St. Louis, I told you that Albert Pujols is the greatest hitter I've ever seen? And remember, I'm from Staten Island. I'm not easily impressed, but I've never seen the ball explode out of a pitcher's hand like it does with this kid.'"
Former major league pitcher Curt Schilling, now an analyst for ESPN, said he "has never seen anything like Strasburg," and Schilling also said that he might be the best pitcher in the major leagues as soon as he arrives. Too much, too soon? Of course it is. There is a reason that no pitcher drafted No. 1 overall has ever made it to the Hall of Fame. Pitching in the big leagues is difficult. Every great young pitcher takes a beating here and there, and there is always the potential for injury. Strasburg knows that. That's one reason why he is so well-liked by his teammates. They were so impressed this spring by his humble nature.
"He's a good kid, and he's going to give us a good chance to win every fifth day," said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who invited Strasburg to a team outing at Disney World during spring training because "he's one of us. He already feels like the elephant in the room wherever he goes. He's got to fit in sometime."
Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn said that Strasburg, despite all the hype, will not be exempt from any of the normal shenanigans that a rookie faces. "There's zero chance of that," Dunn said, laughing. "He knows it is coming, we prepared him for that. I cannot wait."
The Nationals, and their fans, have been waiting for this since the day Strasburg was drafted, and signed, last year. It will be a great day for baseball -- another good young pitcher, and good kid, joining the growing ranks of good young pitchers in the game. It will be an even bigger day for the Nationals. It would be too much to say that their franchise history begins Tuesday night. They have slowly and quietly built a decent major league team, and a good minor league system, in the six years since they moved from Montreal to Washington.
It would be way too much to say that Strasburg is The Franchise, The Savior or Jesus. But it will all change Tuesday. Open the gates. It is time.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
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