When Stephen Strasburg took the mound for the Washington Nationals Tuesday night, a lot more than a Major League Baseball game was on the line. Strasburg represented baseball's foray into the world of "super hype" that has surrounded players in other sports but had yet to break through into our national pastime.
The NBA had LeBron James and the NHL had Sidney Crosby. Both players have lived up to their enormous billing, as they have each snagged Most Valuable Player awards (two for LeBron), taken moribund franchises to new heights and helped earn Olympic gold for their countries. Crosby has also won a Stanley Cup and made two NHL Finals appearances, while James almost single-handedly took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007.
Watching both players perform became a must for anyone interested in either sport. Even if you weren't a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Cavs, you had to find a way to watch those guys play just to see if they could live up to the hype, do something incredible or sag under the weight of expectations and enormous pressure.
Another athlete whose coming was heralded long before he stepped on to the biggest stages in his profession was Tiger Woods. As we've all seen over the years (and especially recently), golf became a Tiger-centric affair after his debut.
Now it is Strasburg's turn. The 21-year-old right hander has been compared to some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. His arm is golden, his poise unquestioned and his attitude refreshing. The kid is everything you would want an athlete representing your hometown to be.
He is listed at 6'4, 220 pounds. His fastball has been clocked from 95 to 101 miles per hour (unverified reports from several sources say he has been clocked has high as 103). He has a devastating curveball/slider combination that leaves hitters puzzled and he's developing a change-up that looks like a plus pitch. He has also shed the curse of being called "a thrower," as virtually every scout now agrees that he has a great idea of how to work a hitter and a game.
Did I mention he had a 4.37 grade point average in high school, and was near a 4.0 at San Diego State when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Washington Nationals as a junior last June?
Strasburg has become such a sensation over the last year that ESPN began running his pitching lines during minor league games on its bottom line ticker. At one point I actually read "Strasburg has no-hitter through three innings in Triple-A start." A whole three innings of a Triple-A game with no hits! Wow!
The sports world has gotten a little drunk on the Strasburg Kool-Aid during the past few months, but don't blame the kid for that. He's just doing everything he is supposed to up to this point.
He is now a part of a Washington Nationals franchise utterly devoid of any semblance of success. At the start of the 2010 MLB season, the Nats have a horrendous record of 328-444 since relocating from Montreal in 2005. That's a winning percentage of just .425. They are coming off back-to-back seasons in which they lost more than 100 games.
Strasburg is the hope that the franchise needs, in the same way LeBron and Sidney Crosby provided promise for their teams.
Strasburg didn't disappoint on Tuesday night. He tossed seven spellbinding innings, striking out 14 batters and walking none while allowing just two runs on four hits. His one mistake was a hanging curveball that Pittsburgh's Delwyn Young timed and launched towards Bethesda for a two-run home run. Other than that, Strasburg looked sensational. He was as advertised in a 5-2 win for the Nationals.
In his NBA debut on October 29, 2003 LeBron James had 25 points, six rebounds and nine assists in a 106-92 loss to the Sacramento Kings. Sidney Crosby mustered just an assist during his October 5, 2005 debut in a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
Strasburg was better. He was poised, in command and on top of his game. Could he have the same type of impact for baseball as the other two have had on their sports? Will we all tune in every fifth day to see what he can do?
After one night it seems the sports world has come down with Strasburg Fever.
Now we are all left wondering how long it will last.
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