Once in a great while, a young athlete bursts into professional sports and confirms lofty expectations of being an elite star. Stephen Strasburg made that kind of debut in North American Major League Baseball. Rarely has Washington's Nationals Park been filled to capacity since it opened in 2008. And, never before has a young pitcher ignited instant life into a struggling franchise as 21-year-old Stephen Strasburg did on Tuesday.
Strasburg threw 94 pitches, in seven innings, on the way to setting a club record with 14 strikeouts as Washington defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5-2. Hall of Fame hitter Tony Gwynn was his coach at San Diego State.
"This is something you just do not see very often in a major league debut. I think he has got a chance to be really, really good," Gwynn said.
Delwyn Young was the only Pirate to overcome Strasburg, smacking a two-run home run into the first rows of the right-field bleachers. Still, the rookie pitcher said he felt very steady on the mound.
"I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I was. You know, when you have veterans in the clubhouse, that really calms you down. Things got a lot better as the game went on. And it just started clicking," Strasburg said.
His game clicked so well that he struck out the last seven Pittsburgh batters he faced.
"At one point I lost track of how many innings I threw," Strasburg said. "And, it is like 'man you know what, I am just going to go out there and have fun.'"
His fun includes a standard four-seam fast ball that blows past home plate and most batters at a sizzling average of 157 kilometers per hour. He has three other pitches -- a slider curve ball hybrid that Strasburg calls a 'breaking slurve,' a two-seam change up, and sinker one-seamer.
"He can locate all of his pitches," Tony Gwynn said. "He has even gotten better. He can cut it. He can sink it. He can run it. He has got a change that dive bombs. He has got a change that runs in. He has big hands so that he can do all kinds of things with his fingers on that baseball. And it is fun."
And it was fun for the fans to see Strasburg's first Major League game. Many wore Strasburg jerseys, which sold at a brisk pace at concession stands. Souvenir items bearing the young pitcher's name were snapped up by eager fans.
The sudden surge in fan attendance no doubt provided a short-term financial boost for the Washington Nationals, who will pay the 2009 top draft pick a record $15.1 million in four years. The expectation is that Strasburg has just begun a long career of similar performances.
The fans were happy to see a strong start. Strasburg said he could feel it. "You know, there was a lot fans there. It was a great atmosphere. I really felt everybody was pulling for me. Good or bad, I knew they were by my side."
He said that details of the game that he had waited for so long to play had quickly become a blur by the time he sat down for the post-game news conference.
"It is kind of like when you get married," Strasburg said. "You kind of go into it wanting to really remember everything. And, once it is done, you cannot remember a single thing."
The honeymoon with baseball fans at Nationals Park began on Tuesday. Those fans hope, years from now, they can say they were at Nationals Park to witness the start of a stellar Major League Baseball career.