Revisiting Stephen Strasburg’s MLB Debut

The cruelty of high expectations is having to meet them. When Stephen Strasburg made his debut on June 8, 2010, it was with the weight of a franchise and the eyes of the baseball world on him, and the belief that he’d be an ace from the first pitch. How could he not be? College superstar, Olympian, No. 1 pick, top prospect; The next inevitable step was transforming into the second coming of Roger Clemens, except without all the bad stuff.

The clamor for Strasburg was loud and endless: His Double-A debut in 2010 was nationally broadcast and featured as many media members as your average World Series game. It was only a matter of time before he came up, even despite the fact that he was just 21 at season’s start, and in early June, the Nationals finally gave in. His first assignment: a wretched Pirates team. But the opponent mattered far less than the fact that he was coming at all.

A decade, a Tommy John surgery, and a World Series ring later, Strasburg — like every other major leaguer — sits at home right now, waiting for the season to start. But in an attempt to tide over the baseball fans crawling through withdrawal right now, MLB Network aired his debut (along with those of some other current stars) on Thursday night. I vividly remember watching it live when it happened, kicking back with a six-pack of Miller High Life and giggling constantly as he carved apart a Pittsburgh lineup unfortunate enough to be there. So given the chance to experience it again, how could I resist?

The First Inning

How important and anticipated was Strasburg? A Tuesday afternoon game between the Pirates and Nationals — two last-place teams with maybe six good players between them — became a national broadcast, with MLB Network airing it live and presumably every national baseball writer in the country in the press box. On the call was the trio of Bob Costas, Jim Kaat, and John Smoltz; Costas, per usual, sounds like he’s narrating a chapter of Ken Burns’ Baseball as he does play-by-play.

As if to remind the viewer of how high the stakes are, Strasburg’s first pitch — a 97-mph fastball taken for a ball by Andrew McCutchen, himself a baby at 23 years old — is taken out of play to be authenticated. “And then maybe it goes to the Smithsonian, or maybe Cooperstown,” Costas says. No pressure, kid.

Oddly, despite the 10 years separating Strasburg’s rookie season from now, the 21-year-old on the screen firing fastballs isn’t all that visibly different from the veteran in his 30s we have today: Same loose limbs, same 1990s grunge band facial hair, same implacable demeanor.

The first frame of Strasburg’s major league career goes by uneventfully. McCutchen lines out, Neil Walker grounds out, and the first strikeout comes via Lastings Milledge, himself a former Nationals super-prospect long gone bust. Against Milledge, Strasburg displays the whole unfair arsenal: a 99-mph fastball for strike one, a looping curveball taken for strike two, and a changeup that seems to leave the stadium entirely that Milledge swings over for strike three. That’s the first of what will be many.

The man opposite Strasburg is peripatetic veteran Jeff Karstens, who as Costas notes, “hopes to be more than a footnote.” It’s a nice idea, but Karstens is destined to be trivia. In his first frame, he retires Cristian Guzman and Nyjer Morgan, aka the irrepressible Tony Plush, and those two are a reminder of just how far the Nationals were from relevance and contention, Strasburg or not.

Luckily for Washington, the one thing the team got right in the five years previous, Ryan Zimmerman, is still there, bopping a solo homer off Karstens to make it 1–0. “That’s a nice present,” Kaat says. It’s fitting for Zimmerman to put the Nationals on the board on Strasburg’s day: The torch is being passed from the past to the future. Sometimes baseball is less a sport and more the first draft of a feel-good film.

The Second Inning

If you want proof of how meager this Pirates lineup is, here’s Garrett Jones, journeyman corner infielder of no renown, hitting cleanup. Pittsburgh, en route to 105 losses and a sixth-place finish in the NL Central, simply wasn’t up to this task. Jones certainly isn’t: After going up 3–0 in the count, he gets mowed down by three straight fastballs, including 99 with vicious movement to finish it.

The hum in the crowd is omnipresent. Everyone is so visibly and audibly happy to see the future in person — to have something to look forward to other than the Presidents Race. When Strasburg hits 100 mph against Delwyn Young, the cheers move through the stands like a ripple. They wouldn’t see history, though, as third baseman Andy LaRoche singles in the second for the Pirates’ first hit.

While Strasburg shows off his stuff, the talk in the booth invariably turns to history, and the ridiculous things asked of someone barely old enough to buy a beer. “Stephen Strasburg might be the most significant pitcher to wear a Washington uniform since Walter Johnson,” Costas says; again, no pressure, kid. The inning ends with Strasburg pushing Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeño out of a moving car, overpowering him with his fastball. Through two innings, he’s struck out four, including the side in that frame.

The Third Inning

If you’d never heard of Jason Jaramillo before this, don’t feel bad; there’s no reason you should know him. His MLB career lasted all of 119 games across three seasons as a backup catcher for some miserable Pirates teams, and in that span, he hit just .235 with all of four homers. The task of solving Strasburg is hard enough for the best of the best; for someone like Jaramillo, it’s like being asked to play Jenga while drunk and blindfolded. His at-bat to start the third is one of a wholly overmatched man acquiescing, striking out looking on a curveball that provides the first whirling punch from home plate umpire and human tornado Tom Hallion.

The results are no better for Karstens, and here’s where pitchers batting feels patently unfair. Strasburg makes it all the harder by flinging a couple of curveballs at a man who collected 13 career hits in seven seasons; ultimately, Karstens goes down swinging at a fastball to become the sixth hitter of the last seven to strike out. The park is loud and electric, and only McCutchen grounding out on a soft chopper to Zimmerman at third prevents a little halo of fire from popping up around Strasburg’s head.

The Fourth Inning

The re-air includes the bottom of the third so we can watch Strasburg’s first career at-bat, which is like giving us Woodstock footage of guitar techs tuning instruments between sets. We zip on to the fourth and the first spot of trouble for the young righty. Walker and Milledge single to start it, and suddenly there’s danger, and a mound visit from future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, who at the time was halfway through his 20th season in the majors and nearly twice Strasburg’s age. The buzz dies down; you can almost hear Pudge’s knees creak as he walks to and from the mound.

As Strasburg navigates his first big-league jam, Costas reminds viewers of the Nationals’ absurd cosmic luck: the day before, they had, with their second consecutive No. 1 pick, selected a 19-year-old catcher out of a Nevada junior college who, in his brief career, had already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and become baseball’s answer to LeBron James. Before he could even make his first start, Strasburg stood in the shadow of Bryce Harper, the other phenom who was supposed to turn around an entire franchise like an aircraft carrier suddenly changing course. But within the span of 24 hours, the two most important pieces are in place. “The Nationals picked a good time to be lousy,” Kaat jokes. (Fittingly, Harper’s debut aired three hours before Strasburg’s on MLB Network on Thursday.)

A double play gets Strasburg out of the two-on, none-out jam, but only briefly: With a runner on third, the light-hitting Young — in what would be the last season of his brief career as a utility infielder — lofts a two-run homer into the right-field stands of Nationals Park. Suddenly the kid looks mortal, though he quickly settles down by getting LaRoche to pop up to end the frame.

The Fifth Inning

As Strasburg works through the fifth, the booth chatters about the man in charge of the franchise’s most important asset: Jim Riggleman, then in his second season as Washington’s manager. Long ago, as the skipper of the Cubs, he was asked to guide another prized pitcher through his early years, when Kerry Wood burst onto the scene. Riggleman was on the bench for Wood’s debut and for his 20-strikeout game not long after, and as he stares out onto the field at his new ace, Costas, Kaat, and Smoltz discuss what he did with his last wünderkind, and about Riggleman’s regrets on pushing Wood so hard, letting him routinely blow past 100 pitches. Wood absolved Riggleman later, saying that his arm was going to give out no matter what, but it’s a frightening and ominous discussion of how quickly and easily things go wrong — and they do with Strasburg, who blows out his elbow a year later. The grim specter of loss hangs over it all. Even this brilliance and happiness can be taken away.

Today, however, is all sunshine. The bottom third of the Pirates’ order is a sacrificial offering. Once more, Strasburg bulldozes Cedeño with fastballs, punching him out for strikeout No. 7. Jaramillo, probably wondering who he pissed off so badly to draw the start today, musters a weak groundout to the right side. Karstens has to suffer through a 100-mph fastball in his at-bat, and strike three is a heater right down the middle, so perfectly placed that both Rodriguez and Karstens start to walk away from the plate before Hallion even begins his windup. The blip that was the fourth inning remains that; Strasburg is in full control.

The Sixth Inning

In this frame, Strasburg sees The Matrix; he can make out the code all around him and manipulate it at will. McCutchen goes down swinging at a 91-mph (!) changeup. Walker can’t catch up to a 99-mph fastball up and away. Milledge goes down swinging on a pitch in the dirt to become Strasburg’s 11th punchout as he strikes out the side.

When this is your debut, how can you not help but disappoint going forward? When you show off a ceiling that looks like the Sistine Chapel, that’s what the fans are always going to want. And for as good as Strasburg is, for everything he’s done, no one can do that every fifth day. Invariably, he was going to let people down through no fault of his own.

A crucial component of that comes out in conversation in the sixth, as Costas notes that the team doesn’t want Strasburg to exceed 90 pitches in his first start. Pitch counts and innings limits hung over Strasburg like a cloud early in his career, and with the gift of hindsight, we know just how bitter and divisive that will be; How it’ll cost him playoff starts two years down the road, and how that will in turn contribute to a perception of Strasburg as weak, as mentally unfit for the challenge of being an ace, as a prima donna who puts himself before the team. It took him nearly a decade to shake that, with a 2019 postseason run so brilliant that it hopefully shut up every last doubter and critic.

The Seventh Inning

The bottom of the sixth sees the Nationals take the lead back thanks to Zimmerman, Adam Dunn (who clobbers a loud two-run homer to right), and Josh Willingham (who follows Dunn’s blast with a solo shot to left). As this goes on, Kaat notes that tonight is also the debut of a power-hitting Marlins outfielder named Mike Stanton. We are all ancient, every one of us. But back in Washington, Strasburg is now in line for the win in his first start, and though he’s at 81 pitches through six, Riggleman won’t deny him one more frame.

It’s the right call: Strasburg is so totally in command that he could probably tell each hitter exactly what’s coming and where, and they’d still have no chance. A ridiculous curveball gets Jones to start the inning; that’s five strikeouts in a row and six of the last seven hitters punched out. If Riggleman had come out to pull Strasburg at this point, the crowd would’ve rushed him as one and torn him apart. Young gets nothing but fastballs, with Strasburg hitting 99 with strike three. Riggleman doesn’t move in the dugout as Strasburg starts LaRoche with a curve that makes him dip. Another follows that screams inside; LaRoche waves over it. Then 99 mph upstairs: side struck out, seven in a row struck out, 14 total. The crowd is screaming like a tornado just whirled through the park.

It’s a ridiculous start: seven innings, 14 strikeouts, no walks, just two runs allowed. Only two other pitchers in MLB history have struck out more men in their debut: Karl Spooner in 1954 with the Dodgers and J.R. Richard with the Astros in 1971 (both racked up 15 whiffs). It’s the first step in what may become a Hall of Fame career; it’s also a work of art that would set the bar for Strasburg so high that he would never again be judged fairly. But for a couple of hours on a Thursday night, stuck at home and dreaming of baseball’s return, Strasburg’s debut isn’t about what’s to come; it’s about the fun of the moment, of watching someone so young and so talented reach such great heights. High expectations are cruel, but when they’re exceeded, the resultant joy is wondrously pure.

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Thanks for the memories !