10 years later, Strasburg's debut still leaves us in awe

It's almost impossible to refer to any game or any player in baseball history as unique. Over the last century and a half, this great sport has seen pretty much everything that can happen, happen.

Yes, there have been countless remarkable, memorable, even historic moments and players. But in nearly every case, they can be compared to something or someone else. Rarely do we get to witness something and say with 100 percent conviction: "Wow, we've never seen anything like that before!"

If you were at Nationals Park on a beautiful Tuesday evening 10 years ago today, you can say you did see something unique. Because baseball had never seen anything like Stephen Strasburg's major league debut before - and it hasn't seen anything like it since.

There have been great debut performances in baseball history (though not as many as you might expect). But there has rarely - if ever - been a debut as highly anticipated as Strasburg's was. And there certainly hasn't ever been a debut performance that was as highly anticipated as this one, with the player's performance exceeding expectations as much as Strasburg's did.

What Strasburg did on June 8, 2010 - 14 strikeouts, zero walks over seven innings in the Nationals' 5-2 victory over the Pirates - left everyone in attendance speechless.

"I really can't put it into words," former manager Jim Riggleman said that night.

"I don't know how you pitch any better," teammate Adam Dunn said.

Strasburg's Major League Baseball debut was a year in the making, anticipated from the moment the Nationals made him the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft out of San Diego State. Everyone knew he wouldn't make the club out of spring training, even if he was clearly more qualified than a few other members of that year's rotation, so speculation all along centered on predicting the date of his call-up.

After 11 dominant minor league starts - five with Double-A Harrisburg, six with Triple-A Syracuse - he was ready. The Nationals went out of their way to pick a home game against a weak opponent for the debut, and in the process ensured five of his first seven starts would come on South Capitol Street.

Under normal circumstances, the team won't announce a player's promotion from the minors until the day before he's officially called up. Sometimes they won't even do it until he has physically set foot in the clubhouse. In this case, they made the announcement nine days before Strasburg's debut. He still had one more start to make for Syracuse.

That's how big this debut was, and the Nationals knew it. They wanted to give everyone ample notice to create a huge demand for tickets, and to allow for a media throng to make plans to descend upon D.C.

And boy did they descend upon this town. MLB Network brought in its top crew (Bob Costas, John Smoltz, Jim Kaat) to call the game. ESPN broadcast Baseball Tonight live from the field before the game. Nearly 200 media members were in attendance. For a Tuesday night contest between a couple of sub-.500 teams that never generated national interest.

We've only seen that kind of attention lavished upon a game at Nationals Park in the last two years: the 2018 All-Star Game, and the 2019 National League Championship Series and World Series.

On top of all that, Strasburg's debut came one day after the Nats used their second consecutive No. 1 draft pick on a 17-year-old slugger from Las Vegas who might have merited even more hype than the guy taking the mound. This organization could never have dreamed of a more significant 24-hour period to showcase its long-term vision.

Of course, all of this would be meaningless if Strasburg disappointed once he actually took the mound for the first time. Club officials began downplaying their expectations for the rookie right-hander. He would be on a strict, 90-pitch limit, so the odds of him making it past the sixth inning were remote. He probably wouldn't rack up big strikeout numbers, focusing instead of inducing weak contact. His fastball would top out in the upper 90s.

Then Strasburg did actually take the mound to a thunderous roar from the sellout crowd of 40,315 and proved the underselling of his potential performance was completely unnecessary.

Andrew McCutchen, a highly touted rookie center fielder, did smoke a line drive right at shortstop Ian Desmond to open the game. But that was the best at-bat the Pirates would put together against Strasburg the first time through the lineup.

Lastings Milledge (batting third!) became Strasburg's first career strikeout victim to close out a 1-2-3 first. Garrett Jones, Delwyn Young and Ronny Cedeño would all strike out in the second, the crowd getting more and more into it with each K.

Ryan Zimmerman's solo homer in the bottom of the first gave the Nationals a quick 1-0 lead, but that's all they would get off Jeff Karstens for five innings. And when Young drove a 90-mph changeup to right-center for a two-run homer in the top of the fourth, Strasburg and the Nats actually found themselves trailing 2-1.

strasburg-throwing-white-sidebar.jpgStrasburg, though, would only get better as the night progressed. He didn't put another Pirate on base after the Young homer. He struck out two in the fifth. Then he struck out the side in the sixth, giving him 11 overall. The crowd roared with delight as he returned to the dugout, then wondered if that would be it for him.

It wouldn't. Despite the tight reins placed on him to begin the game, Strasburg's remarkable efficiency - his pitch count sat at a mere 80 - allowed him to retake the mound for the seventh. And by the time he did, his teammates had given him a 5-2 lead thanks to back-to-back homers by Dunn and Josh Willingham.

Now with the entire ballpark standing and roaring with each pitch, Strasburg blew away the Pirates and elevated his debut to historic levels. He struck out the side again, the last two batters on three pitches apiece, and walked back to the dugout with seven consecutive strikeouts, 14 overall.

It was a new Nationals single-game record, topping John Patterson's previous mark of 13 from the inaugural 2005 season. It was one strikeout shy of the all-time record for an MLB debut, set by Carl Spooner in 1954 and J.R. Richard in 1971. Strasburg, however, did it in only seven innings. The others pitched complete games.

But the numbers were only part of the story that night. Yes, they put Strasburg's performance into historical context. But the other part of the story was the scene at the ballpark. This was an event unlike any the Nationals, or their fans, had experienced before.

There had been energetic, emotional crowds at previous games. The first MLB game in D.C. in 34 years. The Nationals Park opener. Walk-off homers against the Yankees and Braves and Phillies. But there had never been this kind of pure joy and awe at a Nats game. It didn't have the stakes of a pennant race or a postseason game. It wasn't a no-hitter or record-setting performance that snuck up on everyone as the game progressed.

It was built up in advance as one of the biggest games in club history, and then it exceeded the hype by leaps and bounds. And it was all about one player. When had that ever happened before, and when has it ever happened since?

Baseball had been back in Washington for five seasons before this, but not like this. The previous Nationals teams had been fun to watch at times, dreadful to watch at others, but always focused on the future.

Strasburg's debut, though, marked the beginning of a new era for the franchise. No, the team wasn't ready to contend yet. But the path toward contention was finally coming into focus. And this guy - our guy, our own homegrown guy - was going to be the centerpiece of it.

Little could anyone have foreseen how Strasburg's career would play out on that unforgettable night. Though he was an instant success, the elbow tear he suffered 2 1/2 months later brought his rookie season to an abrupt halt and helped shape the narrative of everything that followed. His return in late 2011. His shutdown in September 2012, just as the team was ready to reach the postseason for the first time. His good-but-not-great reputation for the next half-decade, in which he seemed to make news more for the times he didn't pitch than the times he did.

But then, nine long years after that memorable debut, Strasburg reached the pinnacle at last. His performance throughout October 2019, during which he became the first pitcher ever to go 5-0 in a single postseason and won World Series MVP honors, sealed his lofty status as one of the sport's best.

And now, after signing his second long-term contract extension, Strasburg has ensured he'll be a National for life. They'll retire No. 37 someday. His likeness might even be carved into a bronze plaque and hung in Cooperstown many years from now.

And whenever that day comes, we'll all look back at June 8, 2010, and remember how it all started. How the most-hyped pitching prospect in baseball history somehow exceeded the hype far beyond what anyone could've imagined possible.

It remains a singularly unique moment in Nationals history. Quite possibly in baseball history.

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