PHILADELPHIA | Last month, Stephen Strasburg was scheduled to face the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park, until his schedule got thrown off course by his shoulder inflammation and stint on the disabled list. But from my perspective, that just created an even more perfect backdrop for the Nationals rookie's first meeting with the two-time National League champions.
Strasburg takes the mound tonight at Citizens Bank Park, which figures to be sold out and rocking with Phillies fans wanting to show the rookie what they think of him. This is a town that doesn't take kindly to precocious young visitors from other towns; Phillies fans spent the entire 2008 World Series referring Evan Longoria, the Tampa Bay Rays' telegenic rookie third baseman, as "Eva." Strasburg's unprecedented level of hype should only serve to make him a bigger target.
And that's why I'm looking forward to it. Aside from the spectacle, the matchup will also thrust Strasburg into the most hostile environment he'll pitch in this season. He hasn't pitched in front of a truly vitriolic crowd yet; Cleveland, Atlanta, Florida and Cincinnati don't exactly offer much in the way of nasty. Strasburg is as fierce a competitor as you'll find. He quietly feeds off this stuff - perceived slights from opposing players, taunts from fans, disagreeable questions from reporters. From the time he warms up tonight, with fans leaning over the railing and heckling him on Ashburn Alley, he'll get a heavy dose of it.
"I've been excited each time," manager Jim Riggleman said. "Every game that he's pitched, there's been some different challenge. ... The Phillies, for the first time, have got just about everybody back. They're all healthy and playing together. This is an interesting one to watch him in."
The great ones usually have a knack for walking into stadiums with crowds frothing at the mouth and shutting them up. Strasburg will get his first chance to do it tonight.
"It's certainly a little bit more hostile environment here - a packed house, and the Phillies in first place, or competing for first place," Riggleman said. "It's going to be a lot of energy here at the ballpark, and a lot of fans are going to be here to support the Phillies. But there's also going to be fans who want to see Stephen pitch. So, added pressure, and all that. But every one of those types of situations he's faced to this point, he's passed the test. He's been up to those challenges."