- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Davey Johnson loves talking about Stephen Strasburg. He gets excited talking about Stephen Strasburg.

Johnson is a baseball manager who has seen great pitching and knows great pitching.

That’s why he loves talking about Strasburg - because he gets to use the word “great” so many times.

“He has a great arm, great poise, great command, great stuff. … He is special, no doubt about it,” said Johnson, who managed Strasburg, selected Tuesday by the Washington Nationals as the first pick in baseball’s amateur draft, during the 2008 Olympics.

You’ve already read so many accolades about Strasburg that it can make you skeptical about whether he can live up to the hype. Strasburg has been so deified that if and when the Nationals do sign Strasburg, it will never rain again at Nationals Park, as it did Tuesday night. The ballpark clock will suddenly work. The sausages will shoot out of the sausage gun intact and be the best-tasting sausages you have ever had.

Nothing will ever go wrong for the Nationals again.

He may not have supernatural powers to change curses, but the natural powers he has certainly could help change the fortunes of this woeful franchise.

Stephen Strasburg may indeed live up to the hype.

“He is the real deal, baby,” Johnson said.

Johnson, skipper of the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and a winner everywhere he has been, was one of the top managers of his time and particularly good at managing pitching. As a player, he was part of those Orioles teams with Jim Palmer and Dave McNally. As a manager, he nurtured Dwight Gooden with the Mets.

Johnson knows pitching, and he is not a man who is easily impressed. He is effusive in his praise of the 20-year-old Strasburg, who went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA in 15 starts as a junior for San Diego State, also striking out 195 in 109 innings. He did not issue more than two walks in any game this season and walked one or fewer batter in 10 of 15 starts.

“Great makeup and a great competitor,” Johnson said. “He was the only college kid on what was basically a professional team for me in the Olympics, and a lot of the guys used to get on him about it. But it didn’t faze him a bit.

“The first game he pitched for me was against the Netherlands in China, and it made me nervous because he had a no-hitter going for about five innings,” Johnson said. “He ended up with a one-hitter through seven. He threw about 90 pitches. He was overpowering. Great command. He is a power pitcher with control. … He doesn’t overthrow. He has a nice, easy delivery, and he locates real good.

“You couldn’t ask for anything better,” Johnson said. “He goes about his business and knows what he has to do to get prepared. He’s outstanding.”

Sounds like a $50 million pitcher to me.

That reportedly is the price that Strasburg’s uber-agent, Scott Boras, is seeking for his client, only nearly $40 million more than the highest number any No. 1 pick has gotten in the past. I can’t fathom the Nationals paying that amount, and consensus has been that while Strasburg will sign for a record-setting figure, it will be closer to $15 million to $20 million. Then again, I also can’t fathom under any circumstances how the Nationals could not sign Strasburg, no matter what his price - particularly after not signing their No. 1 pick, Aaron Crow, last year and how damaged the organization’s credibility is in and out of baseball after a series of mistakes and mishaps.

The Strasburg hype is so great that if you announced that Stephen Strasburg was simply going to make an appearance at Nationals Park - sing with Cliff, race with Teddy, whatever - it would outdraw the paying crowd of about 20,000 that the Nationals have supposedly averaged so far this year. So if indeed Strasburg is the real deal, he will be worth whatever the Lerner family has to pay at least to stop the bleeding of this wounded franchise.

The hoopla is already driving Nationals management crazy, and the negotiations are just about to begin. On Tuesday night, when acting general manager Mike Rizzo was asked in a press conference about Strasburg being a “once-in-a-generation” pitcher, Rizzo responded, “I don’t know why he is called that.”

Because he is, until proved otherwise, and the Nationals better hope is turns out to be just that.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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