June 8th is the fifth anniversary of what Sports Illustrated called, “The most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen.” Stephen Strasburg pitched his first game for the Washington Nationals and the entire sports world watched with it’s mouth open in awe..
Hard to believe just five years later the pitcher who gave us visions of greats like Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens now sits on the disabled list with a record of 3-5 and a disturbing 6.55 ERA. What was supposed to be the Nats ace of the next decade is now very much a question mark.
And it’s not like he’s been a bust, or even an RGIII-like flash in the pan. Strasburg’s career numbers are quite good: 119 starts, a 46-35 record and a very good ERA of 3.25. It’s just that the immortal greatness that flashed on that June night at three-year old Nationals Park hasn’t been there as often as some of us as Nats fans might have hoped for. And like RGIII, it’s makes you wonder if we’ve already seen the best of Strasburg. Will Strasmas ever return?
To take you back to that Strasmas night – June 8, 2010, I’ll rely on the accounts of two great baseball writers – Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post and Jayson Stark of ESPN. Both were there that night.
ESPN TV had spent the entire day outside the ballpark with Tim Kirkjian setting the scene hour after hour. Sheinin called it, “A spectacular collision of two of the most powerful forces today, a once-in-a-generation baseball phenom and the assembled might of the media hype machine in the Internet age.” He added this:
Never had the nation’s capital, or perhaps the nation itself, seen a professional athlete debut with so much hype and media saturation. The team handed out more than 200 media credentials — equivalent to a late-October playoff game — as an otherwise pedestrian early-June game was transformed into the most singular sort of Washington event.
Longtime District residents were comparing the anticipation for Strasburg’s debut to that of a presidential inauguration. Longtime sports fans were searching their memories for comparable events: Perhaps Michael Jordan’s debut with the Washington Wizards in 2001? The return of Coach Joe Gibbs to the Redskins in 2004? Maybe even the Redskins’ last Super Bowl team in 1991?
“The attention rivals anything I’ve ever seen in sports,” said Nationals team president Stan Kasten, 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.”
It was going to take a spectacular performance to live up to that kind of hype. Well on that magical night, Strasburg not only lived up to the hype – he over-delivered on it.
By the time his night was over, Strasburg had gone seven innings against the Pirates with two earned runs allowed, no walks and an incredible 14 strikeouts including the last seven Pittsburgh batters he faced. Brooklyn’s Karl Spooner (1954) and Houston’s JR Richard (1971) each had 15 strikeouts in his debut, but each went nine innings.
It led Stark, who’d been covering baseball for more than 30 years to wonder if he had not seen the greatest debut by any pitcher in history and write this:
“14 strikeouts and no walks? No pitcher who ever lived has done THAT in a major league debut. And that, let’s remember, is 15 seasons worth of major league debuts by something in the neighborhood of 1.87 billion pitchers.”
Yes Stark exaggerated the size of the neighborhood, but it shows you how far the performance put a veteran scribe over the edge.
Sheinin called it the most significant moment in the history of the Washington Nationals. And at that point, he was absolutely right. The team had lost 103 games the season before which had put them in position to draft Bryce Harper number one overall the day before. It really felt like the dawning of a new age.
Stark wrote, “There’s nothing but pure dominance in Strasburg’s rearview mirror. And there’s no reason to think there won’t be a whole lot more goose bump evenings like this one ahead.”
Strasburg would take the mound 11 more times in that 2010 season, drawing sellout crowds home and on the road. He landed on the cover of SI and his jersey became the number one seller in baseball. His numbers were everything you could have hoped for from a rookie pitcher. In 12 starts he went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and an incredible 92 strikeouts in 68 innings.
And just like that it was over.
In late August, the Nationals announced that Strasburg would undergo Tommy John elbow surgery, putting him out for at least a year. Boom goes the dynamite!
Strasburg would return late in 2011 and looked almost as good as new in 2012, which only ramped up the nationwide baseball debate. The Nationals put the recovery plan of the Tommy John surgery at two years. No matter what happened that season, Strasburg would be shut down in September. Period. General Manager Mike Rizzo held his ground and said the plan wouldn’t change.
Strasburg had his best year, going 15-6 with an ERA of 3.16, but was a spectator as the Nats went down in five games to St. Louis in the NLCS. He followed with an 8-9 year in 2013, but didn’t get much support. His 3.00 ERA was 5th best in the National League. And last year he made every start and led the league in strikeouts with 242 to go with a 14-11 record and a 3.14 ERA. His one start in the postseason lasted only five innings, he gave up eight hits, but only one earned run and took the loss.
It all adds up to very good, but not the fireworks we envisioned five Junes ago. Strasmas? As Stark put it, “pure dominance” is in Strasburg’s rearview mirror, the question now is, is it in the front windshield?