Strasburg's reality almost unreal
Historic debut makes it seem as if anything is possible for Nationals phenom
WASHINGTON -- If you watch enough sports in your life, you think you have a feel for what's possible and what isn't.
And then you see Stephen Strasburg.
The box score will tell us that, in the first big league game of his life Tuesday, this guy struck out 14 hitters, walked nada, allowed zero fly-ball outs and punched out the last seven hitters he faced. So it must have been possible. Right?
But it didn't feel like it. It didn't look like it. It didn't swirl around the brain like it. What Stephen Strasburg did, in the first game of his major league life, SHOULD have been impossible.
For anyone but him, anyway.
He's 21 years old. Remember that.
And every pitch he throws, he does it with an imaginary billboard over his head that reads: THE GREATEST PITCHING PROSPECT EVER. Remember that.
So how could anyone -- not just him, but any living, breathing human -- live up to the advance billing on this guy's marquee?
Well, as we learned again Tuesday night -- in his seven spectacular innings in the Nationals' 5-2 win over those pesky Pittsburgh Pirates -- Stephen Strasburg isn't just anyone.
"He's the only guy in baseball," said his teammate, Drew Storen, "who lives up to all the stories you hear."
Why, sure. Of course he does. So all Stephen Strasburg did, in Game No. 1, was give us, very possibly, The Greatest Debut By Any Pitcher In History. Think about it. He did all this:
• His 14 strikeouts were the third-most by any pitcher in history in a big league debut -- behind only J.R. Richard (15) in 1971 and Karl Spooner (15) in 1954. But since that was slightly before the invention of pitch counts, both those guys went all nine innings, naturally. Strasburg had to cram his 14 K's into just seven innings, before his pitch-count alarm went off at 94.
• But 14 strikeouts and no walks? No pitcher who ever lived has done THAT in a major league debut. And that, let's remember, is in 135 seasons worth of major league debuts, by somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.87 billion pitchers.
• Then again, as the Elias Sports Bureau points out, the heck with debuts. Only five other pitchers since 1900 have had a 14-strikeout, zero-walk game in ANY game, at any point in their careers, in which they went seven innings or less. Those five: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Javier Vazquez, Mike Mussina and Brad Penny. We're guessing you've heard of them.
• Meanwhile, here's another mind-boggling feat to contemplate: In the very first game of Strasburg's career, he set the Nationals' "all-time" franchise record for most strikeouts in one game. What's the degree of difficulty of that, even for a team that's been around only since 2005? "That," laughed Storen, "is pretty ridiculous."
• But since baseball was, in fact, played in Washington before the Nationals arrived, let's put this in further perspective. This was the first time that any pitcher for any Washington team struck out this many hitters in a game since the legendary 1962 game in which Tom Cheney, of the late, great Senators, struck out 21 -- in 16 innings. And it was the first time any Washington pitcher had whiffed this many hitters in a game in D.C. since Camilo Pascual struck out 15 Red Sox batters, for the first version of the Senators, on April 18, 1960.
So what you saw in Nationals Park on Tuesday was something special. Something historic. Something memorable.
Except for the man who made it all possible.
"The only thing I really remember," Strasburg confessed afterward, "was the first pitch, and the ball was inside. Everything else is such a blur. At one point I even lost track of how many innings I had. It's kind of like getting married. You tell yourself you want to go out and remember everything. And once it's done, you can't remember anything."
But someday, we're guessing, it will all come back to him. And if not, there might be a DVD or two available.
Someday, maybe he'll remember how he lit up the radar gun with numbers never before seen by a pitcher on this team. Of those 94 pitches he threw, he launched 34 of them at 98 mph or faster -- 16 at 98, 16 at 99 and two at 100.
And someday, maybe he'll remember how he piled up the strikeouts -- blowing away the side in the second, sixth and seventh; piling up six straight outs on whiffs between the last out of the first inning and the second out in the third; then cranking it to another level to fan eight of the last nine hitters he faced, and all of the last seven.
His final pitch of the night was a 99 mph smokeball to Andy LaRoche, as the ballpark shook with unprecedented bedlam. Then Strasburg disappeared into a sea of hugs and high-fives in his dugout, reappearing only for a curtain call when the news was flashed to the masses that he'd just set the Nationals' single-game strikeout record.
It was an electric moment, very possibly the most electric moment in Nationals history. But the pitcher who inspired it hasn't been around for any of that history. So all he could compare it to was the day back in college, at San Diego State, when he threw a 23-strikeout game and a no-hitter.
"The adrenaline was definitely flowing there," he said. "I was going to throw that ball as hard as I can. And luckily, I threw it where he wasn't swinging."
Yeah, he sure was lucky, all right. Every time he reared back and threw a pitch, he always seemed to throw it where the Pirates weren't swinging. Of the 43 pitches they hacked at, they swung and missed 18 -- which would be nearly twice as many as they actually put in play.
And he was an equal-opportunity swing-and-miss artist. He got seven whiffs on his fastball, four on his slurve and the other three on his dive-bombing changeup.
"You see a lot of pitchers who throw like 97-98, but he's got everything -- a nasty curve, a changeup," said Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeno, who faced him twice and struck out twice. "His changeup is like 89-90-91 miles an hour, man. That's hard to hit."
If this guy keeps going like that, he's got the stuff to be the best pitcher in the league, too.” -- Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeno
Asked if Strasburg reminded him of anybody, Cedeno replied: "Ubaldo Jimenez. I think he can be like that."
Wait, we observed. Ubaldo Jimenez is the best pitcher in baseball. And THAT'S the comparison for a guy who had just finished pitching his first game in the big leagues?
"Yeah, Ubaldo -- he's the best pitcher in the game," Cedeno replied. "But if this guy keeps going like that, he's got the stuff to be the best pitcher in the league, too."
And who are we to argue with him? Strasburg now has faced 234 hitters in his 12 professional starts. Only 35 of them have gotten a hit off him -- but 79 have struck out. That's 2.3 strikeouts for every hit. And if that continues in the big leagues, you should know that no starting pitcher in the live-ball era has ever had a full season with a strikeout rate this high (11.4 per nine innings) and a hit rate this low (5.1 per nine innings).
Of course, now he's in the big leagues. Where he won't be allowed to face the Pirates (team batting average: .236) every night. So as he goes along, there will be more shockers like the changeup that Delwyn Young whacked over the right-field scoreboard for a two-run homer in the fourth inning.
But if he reacts to those shock waves the way he reacted to Young's bomb -- by allowing NONE of the 10 hitters he faced after that to reach base -- he'll be just fine.
His old college coach, some guy named Tony Gwynn, managed to work this game into his schedule Tuesday. And Gwynn tried his philosophical best to temper the madness by predicting that Strasburg is bound to have some rough nights over the horizon.
"Now he's facing major league hitters every night," Gwynn said before the game. "These guys are the best hitters on earth. So there will be lessons to learn. And the first one starts [Tuesday] at 7:04."
Well, there was indeed a powerful lesson that unfolded on this field starting at 7:04 on this night. But it wasn't THAT lesson. Instead, the lesson of the night was this:
When Stephen Strasburg heads for the mound, you should suspend your regularly scheduled life, run for the nearest TV and watch -- because anything is possible. Anything.
"Do I expect him next time to go out and strike out 14 next time? No," said his pitching coach, Steve McCatty. "But if he does it again, would I be surprised? No."
This poor guy has set the bar so high for himself that even the space shuttle would have a tough time clearing it. But the legend grows with every trip to the mound. And there's no end in sight. Not after a big league debut that will rattle around in our memory banks for decades.
There's nothing but pure dominance in Strasburg's rearview mirror. And there's no reason to think there won't be a whole lot more goose bump evenings like this one ahead.
"Yeah, that's how he's going to be," chuckled Drew Storen. "So buy your tickets now."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.