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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Lee Ross

Supreme Court

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Pitcher Dazzles in Nationals Debut

June 8, 2010 - 11:40 PM | by: Lee Ross

This was a night of anticipation Washington sports fans haven’t experienced since they were kids on Christmas Eve. And just like a seven-year-old waking up the next day to discover a load of presents under the tree, Washington Nationals fans were treated to pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s opening performance, an exhibition of skill and accomplishment unrivaled in the history of his team, a masterpiece 14-strikeout victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Strasburg managed not only to live up to the hype that’s surrounded him since the Nationals drafted the 21-year-old in 2009, but far exceeded even reasonable expectations of success in his career debut. His 14 strikeouts, accomplished in only seven innings pitched, established a team record and marked an opening chapter to a big league career that so many believe will ultimately end with immortality in Cooperstown.

The roars and cheers that emanated from the banks of the Anacostia River Tuesday night were unlike any Nats Park had heard before. With luck, chants of “STE-PHEN STRAS-BURG, STE-PHEN STRAS-BURG” will reverberate in DC for the next two decades.

Expectations are nothing new in sports or for a top draft choice. But no one else in this sport has ever been under the microscopic scrutiny Strasburg has faced since he signed a record contract fitting for someone from whom so much is expected. His legend grew with sublime performances in college at San Diego State and a handful of starts the past couple of months in the minor leagues. Strasburg was untested in the big leagues, where it matters, until tonight.

WoW! What a performance!

More than two hours before the opening pitch, fans lined up in the overhang surrounding the Nationals right field bullpen awaiting Strasburg’s initial appearance for his pre-game warm-ups. His every move closely examined, raucous ovations for the most mundane of actions were the norm. Applause for a successful leg stretch; cheers for removing his pull-over jacket; and sheer euphoria from the masses for taking the mound to start the game.

Every pitch that first inning was cause for jeers (balls) or thunderous applause (strikes) without a single Pirate reaching base.

Until tonight, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was the fan favorite. He’s an all-star with an award winning glove. His first inning home run was a bonus thrill for fans who were otherwise taking a breather before Strasburg returned to the mound in the second inning.

Normally fans rush the concession stands and restrooms when the home team is in the field. Not so tonight. Missing a Zimmerman home run or big scores by fellow Nationals Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham was excusable so long as you were back at your seat to watch “Jesus” pitch.

The nickname, given to Strasburg during spring training, wasn’t intended as blasphemous, but rather offered as one veteran player’s honest assessment of Strasburg’s spectacular skills. As in when people see him pitch for the first time the common reaction from stunned players and fans alike is, “Jeeez-us!”

A stadium full of people—and probably thousands more who were elsewhere–will claim with no hesitation that they saw the second coming of, if not Jesus Christ, then perhaps Walter Johnson, who has for nearly a century easily held title to the best pitcher in Washington baseball history.

A fourth-inning Pirates home run was but a minor blip on Strasburg’s pitching line. He struck out each batter he faced in the sixth inning with pitches still reaching 99 miles per hour. Then he did the trick again in the seventh. It would not surprise me that at this exact moment scientists at the U.S. Geologic Survey saw a tremor on the Richter scale for the corner of South Capitol and N Street in Southeast Washington.

With two strikes on his penultimate batter, Strasburg’s name reverberated throughout the stadium. It was a sound blandly familiar in other baseball towns where ballplayers are routinely worshiped like a mythological deities, but never before heard in this new baseball cathedral. The chant remained for Strasburg’s final vanquished foe—his 14th strikeout. No other Nationals pitcher has been so dominating in the club’s five year history.

With a performance like this, Strasburg’s parishioners will undoubtedly expect him to replicate this performance again and again. If he is as God-like as his fans hope there will be many more outings of pure brilliance. But tonight’s show will be unlike any other.

WoW!