Considering 17-year old power-hitting phenom Bryce Harper was selected first overall in Monday’s draft, if 21-year-old Stephen Strasburg pitched well in his major league debut, this week would certainly be the best in the history of the Washington Nationals.

It is: Strasburg was even better than advertised.

He was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team with a major-league worst batting average of .237. The opposition was light, but he still had to stand on the mound in front of a soldout RFK Stadium, in front of over 40,000 Nationals fans expecting the world from him. The most hyped pitcher in history didn’t seem bothered by the incredible pressure. Instead, he bothered the Pirates to no end.

Equipped with a fastball that can hit 102 on the radar gun, a devastating curveball that at times had spitball movement , Strasburg dominated. He had a changeup and a breaking ball, but the fastball-curveball combination was enough on its own.

He struck out Lastings Milledge to end the first inning for the first strikeout of his major-league career, and walked off the mound to the most thunderous of ovations. He would have many more of both.

I watched him dazzle college hitters, then watched highlights of his splendid minor league outings, but I had no idea he would be this good on the major league-level right off the bat.

He fell behind 3-0 to Garrett Jones to begin the second inning. A 96 mile-per-hour fastball painted the corner for strike-one, then two heaters hitting 98 notched his second strikeout. The crowd was going ballistic, sitting on every pitch and relishing in his moment from the stands while he did from the mound.

A fastball, changeup, and curveball sent Delwyn Young, who said before the game “He’s just another pitcher,” back to the dugout. A fastball, curveball, and a changeup to retire Ronny Cedeno ended the frame. Four strikeouts through two innings: a trend that would continue.

Ninety-eight down the pipe, a changeup painting the outside corner, then a curveball had catcher Jason Jaramillo flailing for Strasburg’s fifth strikeout. The pitcher, Jeff Karstens, was overpowered just like the rest.

In the fourth, Strasburg showed he was human, allowing a two-run homer to Young, who managed to avenge the strikeout and back up his pregame comments by taking a 1-0 lead away from Washington. He didn’t strike out a batter in that inning. But that fact only made his final total that much more incredible.

He fanned Cedeno and Karstens in the fifth. The strikeout of Karstens began a string that will live in Nationals lore. A string that ended with him leaving the mound for the last time. All three Pirates whiffed in the sixth. And though he was seemingly done after that inning, having thrown 84 pitches and presumably on a strict pitch-count, he would have to opportunity to build upon his 11-strikeout night.

Manager Jim Riggelman’s decision paid off. With everyone on their feet, Strasburg battled with Jones. Five of the first six pitches were fastball then, with Jones guessing, he twirled in a curve. Jones swung through it, and headed back to the dugout. Young did the same, swinging through two fastballs to notch strikeout No. 13.

Six strikeouts in a row, and all accomplished by using strictly fastballs and curveballs. The Pirates knew what pitches he featured. They knew he had a blistering fastball, a curveball, and a seldom-used changeup. But they didn’t know what to do against it once their names were called.

Strasburg was dominant, and his spectacular night on the mound finished in fitting fashion. Adam LaRoche, the only Pirate he hadn’t already struck out, took a curveball for strike-one, swung through a second to fall into a hole, then was overpowered by a 99 mile-per-hour fastball. Fourteen strikeouts in seven innings , and a seventh ovation.

Strasburg failed to walk a batter and, thanks to back-to-back homers by Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham as part of a three-run sixth inning, was in line for the victory. Before tonight, no pitcher in Major League Baseball history had struck out 14 or more batters in 96 pitches or less. Strasburg needed only 94 to be the first.

He also became the first pitcher ever to strike out as many as 14 without issuing a walk in his debut.  And, his historic feat was made all the more special with that win. A win in an outing that changed the franchise’s future and began the Strasburg Era.

I expected him to be wild in his debut, or at least issue a few walks. He had so much pressure on his right arm entering the start, but he sure didn’t show it. He may struggle during his next few starts. His fastball might not be as crisp, nor located as properly. His curveball might not be as deceptive. But I certainly think the trouble he encounters will be minimal. Pitchers with his heat and offsetting offspeed pitches are very rare.

As his repertoire, movement, and placement suggested in his sensational debut, he will be a star for many years to come. And the Nationals and their ballooned fan-base are rightfully giddy about that possibility.

Feats by Strasburg compiled in an article by ESPN’s Jayson Stark :

“His 14 strikeouts were the third-most by any pitcher in history in a big-league debut—behind only J.R. Richard (15) in 1971 and Karl Spooner (15) in 1954. But since that was slightly before the invention of pitch counts, both those guys went all nine innings, naturally. Strasburg had to cram his 14 K’s into just seven innings, before his pitch-count alarm went off at 94.

Then again, as the Elias Sports Bureau points out, the heck with debuts. Only five other pitchers since 1900 have had a 14-strikeout, zero-walk game in ANY game, at any point in their careers, in which they went seven innings or less. Those five: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Javier Vazquez, Mike Mussina, and Brad Penny. We’re guessing you’ve heard of them.

Meanwhile, here’s another mind-boggling feat to contemplate: In the very first game of Strasburg’s career, he set the Nationals’ “all-time” franchise record for most strikeouts in one game. What’s the degree of difficulty of that, even for a team that’s only been around since 2005? “That,” laughed [Drew] Storen, “is pretty ridiculous.”

But since baseball was, in fact, played in Washington before the Nationals arrived, let’s put this in further perspective. This was the first time that any pitcher for any Washington team struck out this many hitters in a game since the legendary 1962 game in which Tom Cheney, of the late, great Senators, struck out 21—in 16 innings.

And it was the first time any Washington pitcher had whiffed this many hitters in a game in D.C. since Camilo Pascual struck out 15 Red Sox batters, for the first version of the Senators, on April 18, 1960.”

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