Coming into the major leagues with as much hype as any baseball prospect in recent memory, it would have been hard for Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg to live up to all the build-up in his big-league debut.
But the 21-year-old San Diego native nearly did just that Tuesday night. He fanned 14 Pirates batters to set a new Nationals franchise record and tied a team mark by striking out the last seven batters he faced to close out his debut performance in a 5-2 win over Pittsburgh.
Strasburg allowed just two runs — both coming off of a two-run shot by Delwyn Young in the fourth inning — but also allowed just four hits and no walks in seven full innings of work.
After performing well in 11 minor-league starts with Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, Strasburg gave a strong performance by striking out six of the first 10 major-league batters he faced. After allowing three hits and the two-run homer in a rocky fourth inning, Strasburg closed out his outing strong by delivering back-to-back 1-2-3 innings, all via the strikeout. He mixed in a combination of fastballs that hit or exceeded 99 mph on the in-house radar gun, and threw in a curveball that frustrated Pirates batters all evening.
"There's a little bit of nerves," Strasburg said afterwards. "When you have veterans in the clubhouse, it helped calm me down. … It got better as the game went on, and things were clicking."
All this came in front of a playoff-type atmosphere at Nationals Park. Despite it being a weeknight date against a non-divisional opponent working on 18 straight losing seasons, Strasburg's debut helped create perhaps the most anticipated baseball game in the District since the franchise played its first-ever contest at RFK Stadium in 2005.
With just over a week's notice announcing his first scheduled start at Nationals Park, Strasburg's debut resulted in a standing-room only crowd of 40,315 — with the Nationals taking the rare step to sell 2,000 standing-room tickets before the contest to add to the team's second sellout crowd of the year. The team also issued over 200 press credentials to media members from around the country to document Strasburg's first big-league outing.
The crowd responded, getting to their feet with two strikes — a rarity at Nationals Park — and gave the young pitcher several standing ovations, the last one coming as he walked off the mound holding a 4-2 lead and in line for his first major-league win.
"It was a great atmosphere, I felt like they were pulling for me," he said."I went out there and had fun."
The night started out well for Strasburg, who threw his first major-league pitch with flash bulbs popping all around the stadium. Strasburg dug in and delivered his first pitch inside — a 97-mph fastball — to Andrew McCutchen.
Even after falling behind 2-0 to McCutchen, Strasburg got his first major league out thanks to a line drive to shortstop Ian Desmond. He then got Neil Walker to ground out to first baseman Dunn.
He made former Nationals outfielder Lastings Milledge — who got a loud share of boos walking to the plate — the first strikeout victim of his major-league career, getting the Pittsburgh outfielder swinging on a curveball.
Ryan Zimmerman gave the young pitcher some support with two down in the first, belting his 12th home run to center field on an 0-1 pitch from Pirates right-hander Jeff Karstens.
Strasburg opened up the second inning with a strikeout of Garrett Jones, getting the first baseman on a 99-mph fastball after falling behind in the count 3-0 to deliver three straight strikes. He then added Young to the list by punching him out thanks to an 82-mph curveball.
Veteran third baseman Andy LaRoche was able to record the first hit off Strasburg, dropping a single to right with two down in the second. However, Strasburg got out of the inning with his third strikeout of the contest, as Ronny Cedeno couldn't catch up with his curve to complete the second inning.
Strasburg added another strikeout when he got Jason Jaramillo swinging on his curveball to open the third, and then added Karstens to the list thanks to a 98-mph fastball. The inning closed when McCutchen got a hold of a Strasburg pitch, but Zimmerman made a nice play to throw him out at first.
Strasburg even nearly earned a hit in his first appearance at the plate in the bottom of the third, as a slow dribbler to short was just turned in time by Cedeno to get the pitcher at first.
Walker delivered a single to right to open the fourth inning, then Milledge delivered another single to the same spot to put Strasburg in his first jam. Strasburg then induced a bat-breaking double play to Jones thanks to a 96-mph fastball, but Young tagged Strasburg for his first home run allowed over the out-of-town scoreboard to put the Pirates in front, 2-1.
Washington threatened to tie the score in the bottom of the fourth, but Willingham was thrown out at home trying to score on a Roger Bernadina sac fly to left.
Strasburg opened the fifth by striking out Cedeno with a 99-mph fastball, then induced a ground ball to Jaramillo. He capped the inning by getting Karstens to strike out again to close the frame.
He got his second at-bat in the bottom of the fifth, but grounded out to short with one down in the frame. Cristian Guzman doubled down the right-field line, but Nyjer Morgan couldn't keep the inning going.
McCutchen became Strasburg's ninth strikeout victim to open the sixth, thanks to a 91-mph changeup. Walker followed by whiffing on a 99-mph fastball with two strikes. Milledge struck out to close the inning, giving Strasburg a 1-2-3 frame — with the last three outs comingby strikeout.
And, thanks to a single for Zimmerman followed up by Dunn's 11th home run of the year, the Nationals erased the 2-1 deficit, putting their rookie in position to win his first-ever big league start. Willingham added an insurance run with his 11th homer, just the second time this year Washington has put together back-to-back home runs together.
Nationals manager Jim Riggleman left Strasburg in to start the seventh, and he struck out Jones open the frame. He then got Young with a 99-mph fastball, then notched his seventh straight strikeout by getting LaRoche before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh. Strasburg, who threw just 13 pitches in the three strikeouts, left to a loud ovation and then come out for a curtain call to acknowledge the large crowd — most of who came to see him.
The 14 strikeouts were the most of any Nationals pitcher, and also tied a season-high for any pitcher in MLB this season. He also became the first pitcher in baseball history to record 14 or more strikeouts while throwing less than 96 pitches. Strasburg ended the night with 94.
"The last three hitters, he was extremely overpowering," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "I saw Kerry [Wood] do that, you don't get many of those."
"It brought back memories of the 23-strikeout game at San Diego State," Strasburg said. "I was going to throw the ball as hard as I can and put it where they weren't swinging."
Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps came in to close out the win, and closing out a memorable debut for the young right-hander. The team responded afterwards by giving him a couple of shaving-cream pies to the face during an interview in the dugout and then topping it off with the team's trademark silver Elvis wig -- given to the top player of the game.
"I've been catching a lot of guys," Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "This kid is unbelieveable. He throws strikes around the plate, always in the strike zone … He attacked the strike zone … He did great."
"I really can't put into words better than what you saw," Riggleman said. "It was very exciting for everything on him for the last few days. For him to respond that way, it was a great moment for baseball in Washington."
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