Nearly 33,000 people showed up at Progressive Field on Sunday, and it wasn’t because it was a sunny afternoon or because the Cleveland Indians were giving away their newest bobblehead doll.
The second-largest crowd of the season was there to watch Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg pitch and the 21-year-old right-hander didn’t disappoint. His fastball was humming, his curveball and sinker were nasty and his change-up was in the mid-80s. Strasburg went 5 1 / 3 innings in his first major league road game, giving up just a pair of hits, one run while striking out eight. He raised his record to 2-0 and lowered his ERA to 2.19.
It was a solid follow-up to his major league debut five days ago against the Pirates in which he picked up the win by striking out 14 and walking none.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on him to perform,” Indians first baseman Russell Branyan said.
“There’s definitely a lot more expectations with him just being him. The guy’s promising, he’s new to the league and he’s a big deal right now.”
The person least impressed with Strasburg seems to be Strasburg himself. He said he ignores what’s written about him and doesn’t watch TV shows that discuss him.
“I still watch (TV),” he said, “I just don’t watch any of those channels.”
Even the speed of his pitches doesn’t get him excited. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder threw 43 pitches over 97 mph Sunday, nine of them reaching triple digits.
“Velocity doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Look at that (100-mph pitch) I threw (Indians designated hitter Travis) Hafner. He located the fastball and he turned on it.
“It was down, which was good, but I was trying to throw a sinker and I cut it a bit. It did exactly the opposite of what I wanted it to do.”
Hafner’s solo home run in the second inning was the only hit Strasburg surrendered until rookie catcher Carlos Santana blooped one into right field in the sixth.
In between, Strasburg faced 16 batters without surrendering a hit.
Even though Strasburg never managed to reach double digits in strikeouts in his 11 minor league starts — he averaged 10.62 K’s per nine innings — he’s averaging 11 in just 6 1 / 3 innings during his first two major league starts.
“I know there’ll be nights where I have just one, two or none (strikeouts),” he said. “I really want (the opposing batters) to swing their bats. I want them to put the ball in play and let my defense do the work.”
One of the most amazing things about Strasburg’s first two starts is that the results aren’t even that surprising. Strasburg wasn’t just considered the top pitching prospect in last year’s draft, he’s considered the top pitching prospect in decades.
In this modern media age, hype is a hard thing to suppress once a young athlete with that talent level grabs the public’s attention and journalists begin using words like “phenom” and “prodigy” to describe him.
Just 35 miles from Sunday’s spectacle, crowds began to fill the gymnasium at St. Vincent-St.
Mary High in Akron during LeBron James’ sophomore and junior seasons, mostly because the young basketball player was getting as much airtime on ESPN as any NBA player at the time.
The school had to move its home games to the University of Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena during LeBron’s senior year to accommodate the newfound fan base and meet the growing media’s demands.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise that the people of Cleveland — and probably many others within a two-hour driving range — wanted to be on hand Sunday afternoon to see a pitcher many expect to have a long and successful career and who some have already tabbed a future Hall of Famer.
While that kind of expectation should probably be tempered, Strasburg has certainly shown anybody who’s paying attention that he has the tools on the mound and the composure in the clubhouse to achieve great results no matter how long his career might last.
Who wouldn’t have been thrilled to be sitting courtside for Michael Jordan’s first game with the Chicago Bulls, knowing he’d become the greatest basketball player of all time? What hockey fan wouldn’t have loved to pound on the glass after Wayne Gretzky scored his first professional goal, knowing the Great One was on his way to becoming a legend?
There are probably elderly men and women sitting on their porches in neighborhoods throughout Cleveland at this very moment talking about Jim Brown’s rookie season with the Cleveland Browns and how they were there to see his amazing performances.
So for those in attendance during Washington’s 9-4 win over the Indians on Sunday, watching Strasburg was a lot of fun but it could become an even greater memory as the years roll on and he potentially cements himself as one of the game’s greats.
He even earned a bit of praise from one of those already established greats. “The kid did a good job,” Indians Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller said. “He was a little wild at times. He’ll have his good days and bad days like anybody else.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.