National Holiday: Strasburg Dazzles in Washington Debut | The Golden Sombrero Baseball Blog | MLB, Fantasy, College & High School Baseball News

National Holiday: Strasburg Dazzles in Washington Debut

It’s official.  Baseball is back in the nation’s capital.

A casual fan might point out that no, baseball actually returned to Washington in April of 2005, when the Nationals played their first game in DC after 36 years as the Montreal Expos.  Others might say that it came on March 30, 2008, when they played their first game at Nationals Park, a 3-2 win over the Braves on Opening Night that ended with a walk-off home run off the bat of Ryan Zimmerman. And those fans might have had a point before last night.  But on June 8, 2010, that all changed as former number-one draft pick Stephen Strasburg made his major league debut.

Strasburg, who before the game had already inspired nicknames such as “Strasmas” and “Jesus”, threw seven innings and gave up two runs on four hits without a single walk while striking out fourteen, setting a Nationals record for most strikeouts in a single game in front of a sellout crowd of 40,315 at Nationals Park.

As a DC resident, I had the privilege of attending the historic event.  I had actually spent $46 for a ticket to the June 4 game against the Reds, based only on the mere thought that Strasburg might pitch (others made the same mistake—the Nationals’ 4-2 win over the Reds on Friday had the second-best attendance of any game this season) before shelling out $32 on the real game when the official announcement was made.

It was the best $78 I have ever spent.

Even from my seat in left-center field, some 400 feet from home plate, I could see a fastball that moved like the ones thrown by Ubaldo Jimenez.  I could see Pirates hitters giving up on what seemed like every single breaking ball, and I saw a devastating power sinker that produced a double play and should provide plenty of key ground-ball outs in the next fifteen years or so.  But fans didn’t need to see any of those before Strasburg received his first two standing ovations of the evening, both coming before he even threw a pitch on Tuesday night.  The packed crowd knew that it was about to witness history, and the phenom from San Diego State did not disappoint, thrilling the crowd with every one of the 21 outs he recorded.  Particularly pleasing was Strasburg’s first strikeout, a wave and a miss from badly-fooled ex-National Lastings Milledge, who has made quite a few enemies here in the Mid-Atlantic region.  But even at that point, the delirious fans in the stands had no idea that Strasburg would put up thirteen more K’s, something no National has ever done before, and come within a single strikeout of the record for the most in a major league debut.

Even on television, ratings were off the charts.  The typical Nationals game draws an average TV audience of only 8,000 households—a number only about 150 times greater than the average viewing audience for Grinnell College basketball on MWCTV.  But on a Tuesday night game in June against the Pittsburgh Pirates, over 165,000 people tuned in to MASN 2 to watch history unfold.  The hype (and hope) surrounding the game, among baseball fans at least, reached levels that compared to another rather important event that occurred in Washington about a year and a half ago.  And just like that event, the debut of Stephen Strasburg, too, promised change we Nationals fans can believe in.

And believe we will.  It was as close to a playoff atmosphere as Nationals Park has ever seen, almost comparable to that of the last playoff game I attended, Game 1 of the 2009 NLDS between the Rockies and Phillies at Citizens’ Bank Park.  Because on this night, Nationals fans saw more than just a dominant pitching performance and the debut of a pitcher who could become another Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay or Ubaldo Jimenezand quickly. They got a brief glimpse into the future of Washington baseball—a future that a year ago at this time looked like a string of seasons with win totals in the 60s and 70s but now is full of hope that, with a rotation anchored by Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang, the Nationals could win a very respectable number of ballgames in the coming years.  Add to that a lineup powered by Zimmerman and sluggers Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham and a bullpen anchored by first-round pick and eventual closer Drew Storen, and one can see why this team could become a playoff team in the very near future, even if not this year.

Rave reviews of the amazing start began pouring in almost immediately after my favorite closer in baseball, Matt Capps, recorded the game’s final out.  Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell states that “Every one of his starts now falls into that can’t-miss category.”  Indeed, fans in northeastern Ohio must have read his column this morning because in the 24 hours following his start, well over 3,000 tickets were purchased for Strasburg’s next start, which is scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, because the feeling around DC (and now other parts of the country as well) is that any Strasburg start might make history.  Teammate Josh Willingham, who homered in the game to give the Nats their fourth run of the evening, called the evening “An absolutely really cool game to be a part of.”  “What can you say other than ‘Wow’?” remarked team president Stan Kasten.  Even home plate umpire Tom Hallion put in his two cents, telling a MASN reporter that the game was “the most fun I have had umpiring a game behind the plate in a long, long time,” even after the crowd began the night by booing every ball call, including pitches that were a foot or more out of the strike zone.

Fourteen strikeouts.  Twelve by swings and misses.  At least one by every hitter in the Pirate lineup.  Seven in a row to end the night.  Even the “K’s for Kids” section of the scoreboard that keeps track of strikeouts thrown by Nationals pitchers finally had to give in, displaying only a small sign that simply read “12-plus”.  It was an incredible night for all of baseball, and the Nationals faithful loved every minute of it.

So, yes, the team is two games below .500 and they’re in last place in the NL East.  Yes, there were altogether too many fans headed for the exits after the eighth inning, hoping to beat the traffic and the Metro rush home.  And yes, this season has the look of becoming the sixth out of six to end after 162 games for the Nationals.  But none of that matters now.  Because after Tuesday night, a past that included back-to-back 100-loss seasons suddenly appears to be firmly behind the troubled franchise, Nationals fans can begin to look forward with genuine interest at what their team might accomplish with #37 heading its talented core of young players.

So it’s not time to reserve those postseason tickets just yet, Nats fans.  But today, in the nation’s capital, it is truly a brand-new ballgame.

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