In 1971, the Washington Senators broke my young heart when they up and moved to Texas to become the Rangers. The caliber of baseball pretty much sucked in hometown Washington, D.C., but I still loved the Senators. They were my team.
When I moved to Chicago, I got two teams for the price of one, Cubs and White Sox, and that was okay by me. Since I wasn't a Chicago native, I didn't bring any of that North Side/South Side rivalry stuff to the table, and I got my first exposure to National League baseball teams.
Now I'm in Nashville, home of the AAA Sounds, the farm club of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Sounds are cool, though I don't go as often as I should. And in 2005, when the Montreal Expos up and moved to Washington to become the Nationals, I felt childhood baseball longings creeping into my soul. At last! Baseball again in my hometown.
So the Nationals, like their forebears, have sucked too, but like some dopey, blindly loyal kid, I don't care. I still root for 'em. And after right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg's debut performance for the Nats last night, I have a feeling that rooting for my favorite team just got a whole lot easier.
Strasburg, media-hyped to the max, and before a sellout Nation's Capital crowd, coolly struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in a marvelous seven-inning stint. He gave up only four hits, and his one mistake—a home-run ball to Delwyn Young—almost looked like a total fluke: Young's golfish chip shot just looked like an accident, really.
Strasburg threw 97 MPH routinely, hitting 98 and 99 often, and, according to the MLB Network speed gun, hit 101 MPH at least twice. If that weren't enough, this guy has a wicked curve. A NASTY curve. (He calls it a "slurve," but whatever.) His changeup ain't bad, either. But the real tell-tale stat in this winning performance (final score: Washington 5, Pittsburgh 2) was the fact that Strasburg didn't walk a single batter. He threw 94 pitches and didn't walk a soul. Now that's notable. (By comparison, it took the great Koufax about seven years to overcome the control problems that threatened to make his eventual Hall of Fame career merely a mediocre one.)
To have an arm that live, to throw with that velocity, and to apparently have such control of one's arsenal is simply phenomenal, and bodes really well for a Nationals team that seems to be taking steps toward getting better.
Funny thing: When Strasburg was pulled last night for a pinch-hitter, the final two innings were entrusted to set-up guy Tyler Clippard and closer Matt Capps, who've both had their share of success this season, though anyone who knows this club knows there are no guarantees out of the bullpen. (Capps, for example, blew a late-inning lead versus the Reds over the weekend.) Clippard and Capps got the job done all right, but in the future, just to be safe, Nats manager Jim Riggleman might just want to let Strasburg finish his own games. (Just sayin'.)
On their way to respectability, the Nats got home runs last night from the heart of their batting order, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, and as it came in support of the 21-year-old wunderkind Strasburg, it meant good omens all around.
Here's the reality check: Last night's victory brought the Nats' record to 28-31, tied for last in the NL East. Strasburg looks great, but this club still needs better starting pitching (from those not named Strasburg), better relief pitching, and more hitting punch, especially from the outfielders in their lineup. Plus, Strasburg won't face the likes of the mediocre Pirates all the time. There are the Phillies and Braves to contend with, among other better teams, and we'll be watching closely how the kid handles them.
For now, there is joy in Mudville. Mighty Stephen has struck 'em out.