Strasmania Is Coming

Prediction: Stephen Strasburg finishes the 2010 season having delivered five complete-game shutouts to the Braves and Phillies, who are stunned and visibly frightened by his irreproachable fastball. Two of these games are no-hitters, two are perfect games. In the fifth game, Strasburg experiences flu-like symptoms and is whisked from Nationals Park immediately after the final out. As the ambulance speeds to Georgetown University Hospital, where he will receive fluids, Strasburg apologizes to the EMTs for having an off night.

The mania of Stephen Strasburg is coming, and there is nothing we can do either to stop it, or to make it get here faster. The 21-year-old flame-throwing pitcher, drafted first overall last year  (becoming, even then, one of the most talked about prospects in baseball) is expected to be called up from the minors and pitch his first game with the Washington Nationals June 4. The time is drawing nigh.

For a franchise that has never seen the playoffs, has never really been a contender, it couldn't come any sooner. As if by sheer fate, the Nationals have stayed within reach of the NL East title this year, despite falling off recently. They're 21-20--over .500--and playing 4 1/2 back from the juggernaut Phillies. The Nationals have only existed since 2005, moving that year from Montreal and ceasing to be the Expos, playing their first seasons at RFK Stadium. Strasburg's arrival will be the biggest thing for this team since its move, and Strasburg might, just might, help the Nationals finish the season as winners--even playoff contenders, speaking optimistically. It would be a welcomed development in Washington.

MASN, the regional sports-TV network that carries both Nationals and Baltimore Orioles games, has been broadcasting Strasburg's starts for AAA Syracuse, much like ESPN's broadcasts of Lebron James' high school games at St. Vincent St. Mary's, before he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. MASN has shown three Strasburg games so far, all on tape-delay, and another is coming up Monday. It will be the first to air live, at 7 p.m. Eastern.

I caught the most recent of these games on MASN, Strasburg's Wednesday night start against the Rocherster Red Wings.

Strasburg dominated.

He entered the game 2-0 in two games for the Chiefs, 12 innings pitched, with a 0.00 ERA, having allowed one hit, with 13 strikeouts. He would leave with another 6+ innings under his belt, four hits yielded on the season, his ERA unchanged. No runs allowed, in three AAA starts.

Strasburg throws it fast, just like everyone says he does. He is unusual among flame-throwers, in that he's a starter (most guys who can reach the upper-90s consistently are closers)--and in that he actually throws as fast as advertised. It's not that he can throw the ball 98-99 mph, it's that he does, regularly. On his third pitch of the game Wednesday night, Strasburg hits 98 on the gun. On his fourth, he hits 99. Whatever equipment MASN is using in Syracuse*, it's not fast enough for Strasburg. His pitches leap ahead of the film speed, teleporting toward the plate in flashes.

He also has something intrinsically valuable to major-league clubs: innate, physical ability. It's evident that Strasburg derives some of his power from his size--he's listed at 6'4", 220 lbs.--and he doesn't have any complicated wind-up or exaggerated delivery. His ligaments appear to be under minimal duress. He doesn't look like he's going to pull anything when he whips it in at 99; he just gets up there and does it. He doesn't even really look like he's trying. Very little about Strasburg's pitching form is artful or extravagant.

He uses that natural, no-big-deal deliver to cruise through six innings against the Red Wings, recording one out in the 7th--one more out than he's been allowed to get in his first two starts of the season, as the Chiefs limit Strasburg's pitches, protecting the future of the franchise.

Unlike most guys with his special kind of heat, Strasburg has a full complement of pitches to go with it. He throws his four-seamer at 97-99; he has (what appears to be) a two-seamer with movement around 94. After that, Strasburg uses a legitimate, big-league curve, which falls off the table reliably; he drops in a changeup, which sometimes has movement, in the upper 80s. It's enough of a repertoire, most of which appears it will hold up in the majors, that Strasburg can be the type of pitcher who works through the batting order several times, shifting strategies enough that batters don't ever see the same combination of pitches twice.

He locates his fastballs well in the strike zone Wednesday night and leaves AAA International League batters fanning diligently over the top of his breaking stuff, skipping out of the box after they face him knowing that yes, he is the real deal.

The Red Wings strand baserunners at third twice against Strasburg, to end the second and third innings. Strasburg throws a few pitches that would probably get hit, possibly jacked, in the bigs. The hardest hit ball against him comes when Red Wings third-baseman Danny Valencia rips a low line drive down the third-base line, but Chiefs third-baseman Chase Lambin makes the play. Still no extra-base hits off Strasburg in his minor league career.

Strasburg doesn't cool off until the 7th, when his four-seam fastball starts dipping down to 96 mph. Chiefs manager Trent Jewett lets Strasburg record the first out of the seventh inning, taking him one batter further than he went in either of his first two games, clocking him out at 92 pitches, just over the tight limit they're keeping on the franchise gem. Strasburg is removed for lefty Jesse English, just as erstwhile big-leaguer Jacque Jones--who hit .304 for the Twins in 2003 and .285 for the Cubs in back-to-back seasons in 2006 and 2007--comes up to the plate. Just as you think someone will challenge him, Strasburg exits the game, having given up three hits and no runs. Another shutout day.

Strasburg will be here, sooner perhaps than the world realizes. The Chiefs have been raking in the attendance with Strasburg residing in Syracuse (last night's game drew 12,590, officially), and Nationals t-shirts with "Strasburg" on the back are reportedly being sold.

And young Strasburg is biding his time, waiting for June 4, throwing ungodly heaters like it's no thing, while Nationals fans hope their team can hang onto a winning record to greet him.

It will be sweeter if Strasburg's arrival means something, beyond 99 mph. The novelty of a new team in Washington is beginning to wear off, and fans want to see wins. First they just want to see Strasburg. Then, they want to see him win. I want to see how he looks with more adequate video technology*. We all want something. Strasburg is just a 21-year-old blank canvas for such desires, but he's coming, and he's coming soon.

*UPDATE: MASN, which broadcasts its big-league games in HD, will show all of Strasburg's appearances in full HD glory once he gets called up to Washington and dons the Nationals uniform. For his games with the Chiefs, the network is using a standard-def video feed from Time Warner Sports in Syracuse, which produces the Chiefs games. MASN has a satellite truck on site in Syracuse to transmit the feed for taping. A MASN spokesman, who kindly helped me with this post before I callously dissed the Syracuse equipment that doesn't even belong to his network, assures me that MASN is as excited as I am to see all of Strasburg's games in HD once he gets called up to the majors.