Strasburg is Nationals' pride

Pitcher may have ushered in new era for Washington franchise having lived up to hype on debut.

Stephen Strasburg, of the Nationals, left the game after seven innings with a 4-2 lead, having struck out 14 Pirates hitters. He retired the last 10 batters he faced in order, seven of them by strikeout.
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WASHINGTON // They drove to work with baseball talk on the radio, tweeted from their office cubicles, checked their favourite blogs for updates, snuck glances at the handy countdown ticker that ran all day on ESPN, wished each other "Merry Strasmas" and finally, at 7.06pm, they rose as one from every corner of Nationals Park, with cameras and camcorders held aloft, to glimpse the most significant moment in the brief history of the Washington Nationals.

It was the first major league pitch of Stephen Strasburg's career - a 97mph (156kph) fastball, inside, ball one. The dawning of a new era for the Nationals franchise, and the spectacular collision of two powerful forces: a once-in-a-generation baseball phenom and the assembled might of the media hype machine in the internet age. If it was possible to live up to that hype, the tall, sturdy kid with lightning in his right arm and the hopes of a beleaguered fan base in his hands did it, pitching magnificently against the Pittsburgh Pirates in his major league debut game.

The strikeouts piled up and the innings rolled by, and only one slip-up - a two-run homer in the fourth inning - marred the scorecard. Strasburg left the game after seven innings with a 4-2 lead, having struck out 14 Pirates hitters. He retired the last 10 batters he faced in order, seven of them by strikeout. Two innings later, he had his first major-league victory as the Nationals held on to win 5-2.

Never before had the nation's capital, or perhaps the nation itself, seen a professional athlete debut with so much hype and media saturation. The Nationals handed out more than 200 media credentials - equivalent to a late-October play-off game - as an otherwise pedestrian early-June match was transformed into the most singular sort of Washington event. "The attention rivals anything I've ever seen in sports," said Stan Kasten, the Nationals team president who has been running sports franchises since 1979. "For us, this is as big as it gets. We've got a World Series-sized media contingent here for a Tuesday game against the Pirates."

Old-timers might be compelled to reach back to the 1933 World Series, the final one for the old Washington Senators, for the last baseball moment this big in the city. Strasburg, a 21-year-old from San Diego, arrived at Nationals Park 364 days after being selected with the first overall pick of the 2009 draft, 10 months after signing the most lucrative contract in the history of baseball's draft (US$15.1 million (Dh55.5m)) and 58 days after making his professional debut as a member of the Class AA Harrisburg Senators in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Those 58 days, as Strasburg abused minor league batters at two different levels across New York and Pennsylvania, only served to grow his legend and push anticipation among Nationals fans. "It's a red-letter day for the franchise," Mark Lerner, the team's principal owner, said on Tuesday. "I think that fans one day will look back and say, 'I was here the day the franchise took the next step'." Strasburg himself, however, is as grounded and humble as they come. He arrived at the stadium mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Rachel, his wife, with team officials escorting them in through an entrance to Nationals Park out of public sight.

At 3.30pm, as the media were allowed into the Nationals' clubhouse, Strasburg sat in a brown recliner looking up at a flat-screen television. Every other television in the clubhouse was turned to ESPN, which featured wall-to-wall Strasburg coverage, but the phenom himself, decked out in a red T-shirt, navy blue mesh shorts and black flip-flops, was watching Cash Cab on the Discovery Channel. Shortly after 6pm, Strasburg put on his gleaming white No 37 game uniform top and laced up his spikes.

As he walked to the outfield alongside Steve McCatty, the pitching coach, to begin his pre-game stretching routine, the crowd along the right field line rose and cheered. The sections of seats around the Nationals' bullpen swelled with fans as he threw his warm-up pitches. "This is really a childhood dream," Scott Boras, Strasburg's agent, said before the game. "This is beyond a baseball game. That first game is special. It's the one thing that's the most difficult to prepare for, because you wanted it to happen your whole life," he added.

Once the game started, Strasburg's exceptional ability, which had led many observers to call him the best pitching prospect in the game's history, revealed itself immediately. The first inning ended with a strikeout on a physics-defying curve ball, and the second inning saw Strasburg's fastball reach 100mph on the stadium radar read-out, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd. When Strasburg, protecting a 1-0 lead, gave up a two-run homer to Delwyn Young, the Pirates right fielder, with two outs in the fourth inning, the crowd seemed almost confused - wait, that was not supposed to happen, was it? - but went right back to cheering when Strasburg jogged back to the mound for the fifth.

As the sun began to set beyond the dome of the capital, and Strasburg toed the pitching rubber at the start of another inning, reality began to set in, and it was not too bad at all. This was going to be the start of a long, beautiful relationship between a city and its ace. It was not always going to be perfect, but it was going to be something to behold. * The Washington Post