HOUSTON — When Stephen Strasburg made his first major league start for the Washington Nationals, on June 8, 2010, fans lined up outside Nationals Park hours before the game — some waiting since the morning for the Tuesday night game. Team officials referred to the game as “Strasmas,” the highly anticipated debut of the pitcher the Nationals had drafted a year earlier, a player many scouts had called the greatest pitching prospect they had ever seen.
The Nationals issued more than 200 media credentials and hired extra security guards and ushers. More than 40,000 fans packed the ballpark — the Nationals would draw under 19,000 the next day — and watched their new pitcher dominate the Pirates over seven innings. He twice hit 100 mph on the radar gun, a notable achievement at a time when Aroldis Chapman had yet to reach the majors and make 100 a regular thing. Strasburg struck out the final seven batters he faced, finishing with 14 K’s, and his 94th and final pitch was 99 mph. He left to a standing ovation.
Anything was possible.
More than nine years later, we’ve gotten to this point. Tuesday night is Game 6 of the World Series, and Strasburg will make the biggest start of his career in the biggest game in Nationals history, looking to push the World Series to a seventh game against one of the best teams in the sport’s history. In many ways, of course, it will be a defining moment for Strasburg. Of course, we’ve also spent his entire career trying to define it for him.
As Strasburg transformed from a chubby freshman at San Diego State who threw 37 innings — all in relief — into the flamethrowing junior who had scouts and baseball people in awe of his talents, we put him into the Hall of Fame as soon as the Nationals drafted him first overall in 2009. When he blew out his elbow 11 starts after that debut and had Tommy John surgery, we decided what that meant. When he returned in 2012 and was shut down for the postseason, we pilloried him (and the Nationals). As he battled nagging injuries at various points in his career, we said he couldn’t stay healthy. When he signed a seven-year, $175 extension with the Nationals, we called him overpaid.
It’s never been enough — and that hasn’t been fair. Because here we are and Strasburg, now 31, is pitching better than ever and is in the midst of a terrific postseason. He’s one of the best starters in the game and might be just entering the best seasons of his career. It is enough.
Strasburg doesn’t say much in interviews. His prestart news conferences during the playoffs are standard fare about facing the opposition, treating it like any other game and executing his pitches. Colleague Buster Olney calls Strasburg a very private person. Maybe that has created a certain image in the media. At the beginning of the postseason, during the division series against the Dodgers, he said, “I just learned over the years that pressure’s a funny thing. I think it’s something you have complete control over.”
That mindset has helped Strasburg get to this point. He’s 4-0 this postseason with a 1.93 ERA over four starts and one relief appearance. He has 40 strikeouts and just two walks over 28 innings, and the Nationals have won all four of his starts. His career postseason ERA is 1.34 over 47 innings. If the baseball writers gave out an award akin to the NHL’s Conn Smythe for the most valuable player of the playoffs, Strasburg might be the front-runner — particularly if he can shut down the Astros in Game 6.
He has been in complete control. He had a healthy season, making 33 starts, and the pitcher who always missed time led the National League in innings pitched. “I think mechanically I’ve been able to be a little bit more consistent when I go out there and pitch,” he said prior to Game 5. “Just made some minor tweaks in the offseason training program. I kind of put more emphasis on just strength, not so much endurance, and trying to get my weight up. And I was able to kind of ride that throughout the year.”
On media day before the start of the World Series, Strasburg mentioned how he often likes to watch the bullpen sessions of his fellow starters. He said that might sound a little strange, since he has nothing in common with a slider-heavy left-hander like Patrick Corbin (Strasburg rarely throws his slider these days) or an off-speed specialist like Anibal Sanchez (Strasburg throws much harder). He said there’s always something to learn.
All along, maybe we’ve underestimated Strasburg’s competitiveness or how much he enjoys pitching. He has become a craftsman on the mound, and if you watch the way he mixes in his curveball and his drop-dead changeup, you can appreciate how he has evolved from the electric-armed youngster to a thinking man’s pitcher — albeit one who still averages 94 mph with his fastball.
The other thing we’ve underestimated all along: just how good he is. Among active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings, Strasburg’s 3.17 ERA ranks sixth behind only Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner and Corey Kluber. His strikeout rate ranks third behind Sale and Yu Darvish. He just finished his age-30 season, but look how he compares with teammate Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander, his Game 6 opponent, through the same age:
Strasburg: 112-58, 3.32 ERA, 1,438 IP, 1,695 SO, 130 ERA+, 32.6 WAR
Scherzer: 105-62, 3.46 ERA, 1,468 IP, 1,597 SO, 120 ERA+, 30.6 WAR
Verlander: 137-77, 3.41 ERA, 1,772 IP, 1,671 SO, 127 ERA+, 40.7 WAR
Scherzer and Verlander have had some of their best years in their 30s. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Strasburg do the same. In some fashion, if you can reach age 30 with your stuff and your arm intact, good things lie ahead, kind of a Darwinian theory of survival. Strasburg’s next five seasons might be his best five seasons.
Those might not necessarily come in a Nationals uniform, however. Strasburg has an opt-out clause in his contract, which is set to pay him $100 million over the next four seasons. If he decides to test free agency, he could get more long-term money than that.
For now, the focus remains Game 6. The Nats believe Strasburg is the man to keep them alive — even as they scored just three runs in their three home losses after winning the first two games in Houston.
“We have Stephen Strasburg on the mound, who has been unbelievable for us this year,” manager Dave Martinez said Monday. “The guys feel good. We were talking last night after the press conference, and they’re all upbeat. This is way far from over.”
In his Game 2 start against the Astros, Strasburg held Houston to two runs over six innings — giving up two runs in the first inning and then throwing five scoreless frames. His changeup and curveball have been lethal in the postseason, with opponents hitting .152 against the changeup and .125 against the curveball. They have hit .368 against his four-seam fastball, however, and .391 against his two-seamer. As a result, Strasburg has cut down his usage of his four-seamer. In the regular season, he threw it 28% of the time. Against the Astros, he threw it on 17% of his 114 pitches. The two-run home run Alex Bregman hit off him, however, came off a changeup.
Maybe Strasburg will adjust. Maybe the Astros will adjust. Mostly, though, Strasburg will just pitch.
“The important thing is to go out there and pound away and trust your stuff,” he said Sunday.
Trust your stuff and carry your team to Game 7. Luckily he doesn’t feel the pressure.