Commentary

Stephen Strasburg really says hello

Hyped phenom lives up to billing with electric spring training debut for Nationals

Originally Published: March 9, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

VIERA, Fla. -- His cleats reached the mound at 1:03 p.m., Eastern Strasburg Time, as John Fogerty was warbling over the PA system: "Put me in, Coach. I'm ready to play."

And boy, was Stephen Strasburg ever ready to play.

A guy gets to make his major league debut only once in life. So for America's Phenom, this was a moment that couldn't come fast enough. A Washington Nationals jersey on his back. Detroit Tigers leadoff man Austin Jackson standing 60 feet away. A press box packed with observers from all over the continent.

It was now, finally, show time.

"All the craziness, all the hype, all the anticipation -- it's all over with," said America's Phenom on Tuesday, after posting his first two big league zeros on the old scoreboard. "It's in the books."

This being spring training, those books won't count, of course. But these two shutout innings -- featuring a couple of soft singles and two eyeball-popping strikeouts -- they will sure count in the memory bank of a 21-year-old kid from San Diego who has waited for this for just about ever.

"Obviously, when you're a kid, you dream of pitching in the big leagues," Strasburg would say an hour and a half after leaving the mound. "I know it's spring training, but it's big league spring training, and you're facing guys like Miguel Cabrera -- veteran players who have had a lot of success in the big leagues. So it was a great experience."

But what this experience meant to a kid just starting his professional journey was only part of this story. It's also the beginning of another journey -- the journey of a franchise that needs to ride Strasburg's electrifying talent back to a place the rest of us know as "relevancy."

It's a franchise that lost 103 games last year, a franchise with a pitching staff that ran up a scary 5.02 team ERA. It's also a franchise that is 0-7 this spring and has been outscored in the process by the UConn-women-like margin of 76-34.

Oh, and one more thing: All the pitchers in the Nationals' camp who are not named Stephen Strasburg have allowed opposing hitters to hit .396 this spring. Yep, .396.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelTwo innings was all Stephen Strasburg needed to prove he could overpower major league hitters.

So for the Nationals, this wasn't just another day in the life of spring training. This was, for all intents and purposes, the day they reappeared on baseball's radar screen.

"We were all excited," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "Everybody was into it. It was great."

In theory, we suppose it could have been greater -- if Strasburg had struck out all eight men he faced or something. But considering this was the first time in his life he had thrown a pitch to big league hitters, it was one dazzler of a show.

"Now that," said one scout in attendance, "is worth $15 million."

"He's the real deal," said another. "A special talent, with huge upside."

And those two men were the lucky ones. They didn't even have to hit against the guy.

But Cabrera did. And barely lived to tell about it.

The Tigers first baseman is one of the great hitters of our time, an almost Pujols-esque talent when he holds a bat in his hands. But in his first run-in with Strasburg, Cabrera never even put a ball in play.

Fouled off a 97 mph smokeball. Buckled on an 81 mph curveball. Swung through a sailing 98 mph flameball. Thanks for playing. Have a nice trip back to Lakeland.

"What you read about, it's true," Cabrera said afterward. "It's real. He's the kind of pitcher you don't see every day."

Strong words. But it turned out Cabrera was just getting started. Asked about how the ball roars out of Strasburg's smooth, easy, slo-mo delivery, Cabrera delivered the spring training quote of the year:

"When he throws the ball," Cabrera said, "it's like an explosion."

Ka-boom.

He spoke like that for five minutes. After listening to all the superlatives, one media inquisitor asked Cabrera whether he thought Strasburg's future was as bright as it had been hyped to be.

"Oh my God," Cabrera replied. "Yeah. What do you think?"

OK, right. What does everybody think? We've never run across anyone in this game who doesn't think exactly the same thing. On the way into the park, it's easy to be skeptical about whether the kid on the mound can possibly be as good as the hoopla. Then you see it, and you're sold.

Count Tigers manager Jim Leyland in that group, too. Couldn't wait to see this act in person -- "been reading about it since two years ago," Leyland said.

Two shutout innings later, Strasburg had another convert.

Leyland called Strasburg's fastball "electric," and raved about the 90-91 mph changeups on back-to-back pitches to third baseman Don Kelly.

"

Miguel Cabrera What you read about, it's true. It's real. He's the kind of pitcher you don't see every day.

" -- Miguel Cabrera on Stephen Strasburg

"But I was more impressed with the breaking ball," Leyland said. "A lot of guys now are throwing 96-97. Not many have the breaking ball to go with it. That's a very gifted young man. I was very impressed with him."

Couldn't blame him. Who isn't? But luckily for Leyland, he was the manager in this game who didn't have to decide what to do with this guy. And that decision, for Washington, is the hardest part of employing a pitcher like this. How do the Nationals resist the temptation to tell their most talented pitcher he belongs in Harrisburg, not in D.C.?

"A guy like that, he's probably not long for the minors," Leyland said. "Now it's none of my business what somebody else's plans are. But from what I saw, he's not long for the minors."

Well, he ain't kidding. But now try to define "not long." Does Strasburg need 20 starts in the minor leagues? Or more like 20 minutes? Not an easy call.

Five years ago, the man who played third base behind Strasburg on Tuesday was even younger the day he reached the big leagues. Ryan Zimmerman was 20 years and 11 months old -- and less than three months removed from draft day -- when he arrived, as another megahyped No. 1 pick.

It was an awesome experience -- and one Zimmerman wouldn't wish on anybody. Even Strasburg.

Asked whether he enjoyed having all that hype accompany him to the major leagues, Zimmerman didn't blink.

"No," he replied. "I hated it. You're so scared to do anything wrong when you first get called up, you just want to sit at your locker and kind of blend in. But for him, it's hard to blend in when there's 30 people at his locker every day."

In the minor leagues, Zimmerman said, at least this guy would get a chance to live the daily grind of professional baseball, to find out what works and what doesn't, to work on his weaknesses before all the big league scouts and number crunchers could broadcast them to the rest of the universe.

And there's a lot to be said for that. But that doesn't mean it's automatically the right thing to do, either -- for this pitcher and this franchise. So even in Strasburg's own locker room, there's plenty of debate about what that right thing really is.

"I wouldn't want to rush him, but he's not your normal kid who just comes out of nowhere," first baseman/philosopher-king Adam Dunn said. "He went and pitched in the [2008] Olympics and did well. He's been on some big stages, man. So if he's ready, let him go. … If he's our best, why not?"

Excellent question. And it's one the men who run this team have been wrestling with since the day they drafted this guy, which happened to be nine months to the day before he finally took the mound Tuesday.

They don't want the face of their franchise to be a fellow who has never even played a game for their franchise. They don't want Stephen Strasburg to turn into a freak show or a sideshow. They don't want to force him to be anything he isn't ready to be.

But suppose what they get the rest of this spring is more of what they saw Tuesday? Suppose the zeros on the scoreboard just keep mounting when he pitches while all the pitchers around Strasburg keep posting these same crooked numbers? Then what?

"The consensus of this organization, top to bottom, is that the plan is to start him in the minor leagues," said his manager, Jim Riggleman. "But I'm not saying that -- because we might eat those words. So we're leaving that open, in case something unforeseen changes our mind."

And what might that something be, you ask? It would be something just like what they witnessed Tuesday -- when the best pitcher in their house was clearly the kid who had just walked through the front door of that house.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new 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.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com