WASHINGTON – Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 batters in his first game, took three shaving cream pies to the face, donned a silver Elvis wig — then compared it all to getting married.
What could he possibly do for an encore?
Baseball’s newest wunderkind went beyond the hype — and anyone’s reasonable expectations — with an electric and unprecedented major league debut Tuesday night in the Washington Nationals’ 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I’ve been catching a lot of guys,” said likely Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, patting Strasburg on the left shoulder, “but this kid is unbelievable.”
With a standing-room-only crowd roaring at every chance, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick put on a dazzling display of power pitching. His fastballs reached 100 m.p.h. — and still had movement when they crossed the plate — and his nasty curves were nearly impossible to hit.
The 21-year-old right-hander allowed four hits, two earned runs and didn’t walk a batter, piling up the most strikeouts in a big league debut since J.R. Richard fanned 15 for Houston in 1971. He was pulled for a pinch hitter after seven innings and took a quick curtain call.
After the final out, Strasburg was pelted with a shaving cream pie to the face courtesy of teammate John Lannan. The rookie was quickly handed a towel, but after wiping his face was blindsided by two more pies. Then someone crowned him with the goofy, oversized wig that’s named after Elvis Presley — a clubhouse ritual for whoever teammates choose as the player of the game.
“It’s hard to talk with so much shaving cream on my head,” Strasburg said. “I just wanted to go out there and say I’ve had my first outing in the big leagues. I’ve had a great time.”
Strasburg always pitches in a hurry — the game took only two hours 19 minutes — and plate umpire Tom Hallion even suggested to him that he slow down his warmups because the breaks between innings are longer in the majors.
“The only thing I really remember is the first pitch — ball inside — everything else is just such a blur,” Strasburg said. “At one point I lost track of how many innings I threw. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go out there and have fun.’ It’s amazing.
“It’s kind of like when you get married and everything, you kind of go into it wanting to remember everything — and once it’s done, you can’t remember a single thing.”
Strasburg should know. He was married in January. His family, gathered in the corner of the news conference room, joined in the laughter. When he left the podium, he gave hugs to all of them.
Strasburg got better as the game progressed, and the ballpark was near delirium when he struck out the side on 13 pitches in his final inning. He fanned the last seven batters he faced, and all nine Pirates in the starting lineup struck out at least once.
“It’s never easy to hit 97 to 100 (m.p.h.),” said Andy LaRoche, Strasburg’s final strikeout victim, “especially when he’s got a curveball like that. It’s the combination of the two. You can say, ‘All right, here comes 100 right down the middle,’ or ‘Here comes the curveball,’ and it’s still tough to hit.”
Karl Spooner also struck out 15 in his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. He and Richard are the only pitchers with more strikeouts than Strasburg in a major league debut since 1920 — and Spooner and Richard both had three walks.
Strasburg also tied Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers for most strikeouts in a game in the majors this season. Scherzer had 14 on May 30 against Oakland.
Strasburg left with a 4-2 lead. When it was announced that he had set a team record for strikeouts since the franchise’s move to Washington in 2005, the crowd cheered again — and Strasburg emerged to the top step of the dugout and tipped his cap.
“It’s something I’ve never seen before,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Usually you see it in basketball, in the NBA, stuff like that. Never in baseball. … It’s his game and a lot of people came out to watch him. He didn’t really let them down.”
The day was nicknamed “Strasmus” — and it was the biggest baseball event in the nation’s capital since the sport returned after a 33-year absence. To go real deep into history, one could argue that Strasburg had the most anticipated Washington rookie pitching debut since Walter Johnson at the long-forgotten American League Park on Aug. 2, 1907.
Strasburg threw 94 pitches — roughly the limit imposed by management before the game — and 65 were strikes. He made one mistake, a 90 mph changeup golfed by Delwyn Young into the first row in right field for a two-run homer in the fourth inning. The ball would have made a great souvenir, but a fan threw it back onto the field.
The homer gave the Pirates a 2-1 lead, but the Nationals gave their rookie the win with three runs in the sixth. Adam Dunn hit a two-run homer, and Josh Willingham followed with a solo shot.
Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth and Matt Capps the ninth for his 19th save.
Zimmerman also homered for the Nationals, a solo shot in the first inning. All three of Washington’s home runs came off Pirates starter Jeff Karstens (1-2).
Cameras flashed as Strasburg (1-0) threw his first pitch at 7:06 p.m. — at 97 m.p.h. and well inside to leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen. Fans booed when Hallion called it a ball. Rodriguez then handed the ball to the umpire and it was removed from play for posterity.
“I wanted to call a breaking ball,” Rodriguez said. “He said no.”
Strasburg was promoted after dominating the minors, going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA, 65 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 11 starts in Double-A and Triple-A. His debut came nearly a year to the day after he was drafted No. 1 overall, and one day after the Nationals — who have lost 100 games in consecutive seasons — chose 17-year-old hitting sensation Bryce Harper with the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s draft.
Washington sold out Nationals Park for only the second time all season, and went through an extra 2,000 standing-room-only tickets a few hours before the game. Fans cheered when Strasburg emerged from the dugout at 6:24 p.m. with pitching coach Steve McCatty. Surrounded by photographers and cameramen, Strasburg grinned at McCatty and said, “Let’s go.”
Strasburg warmed up in the bullpen, where fans stood six-deep to watch. He received a standing ovation when he walked back to the dugout after the national anthem, and it was a funny scene when McCatty pretended the cheers were for him and doffed his cap.
Strasburg, who had been feeling the adrenaline since “about 2 o’clock,” said the moment helped him relax.
“That kind of put a smile on my face,” Strasburg said. “He made me laugh, and kept me loose.”
Not that he needed much help.
“He pitched,” Dunn said, “probably the best game I’ve ever seen pitched.”
NOTES: Pirates C Ryan Doumit was out with concussion-like symptoms. INF Bobby Crosby had a stomach virus. Doumit will likely miss two or three games, manager John Russell said. … RHP Brad Lincoln, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2006 draft, will make his major league debut as the Pirates’ starter Wednesday. … Among those in attendance was Strasburg’s coach at San Diego State, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.