On this matter, Stan Kasten has standing unlike anyone else in his sport. Because the president of the Washington Nationals didn’t start in baseball — he was general manager of the Atlanta Hawks when the NBA got big because of big names. So when Kasten says, speaking of Stephen Stasburg, “I’ve never been through this” … well, you listen.
After his first big-league start, Strasburg had a sandwich named after him. BGR The Burger Joint concocted the Strasburger, complete with 14 pickles. (He’d struck out 14 — Pirates, not pickles — in his debut.) By his second start, Strasburg regalia was flying off the racks at concession stands at Progressive Field in Cleveland, which isn’t his home ballpark.
“That’s something you never see in baseball,” Kasten said. “That’s something you see in the NBA … That happens to Jordan.”
(Do we need to mention that Kasten wasn’t referring to Jordan Schafer?)
Turner Field was close to full for Strasburg’s first Atlanta appearance Monday night — attendance was 42,889, of which 21,608 tickets were sold the past five days — and there’s another departure. “It doesn’t happen in baseball that individuals sell out stadiums,” Kasten said, but here it is. Average attendance for Strasburg’s first four starts is 37,664 — and this, we need to note, is for a rookie pitcher on a last-place team.
This has been accomplished not because the Nationals have four-walled the market with splashy Strasburg promotions; on the contrary, the club has done its best to restrain the hysteria. The man himself addresses the media only after he pitches. He doesn’t do daily briefings at his locker. He doesn’t do one-on-ones. He just pitches, and then he talks, and then he waits to pitch again.
Kasten: “He’s the last kid in the world who wants this kind of thing. But it’s a new age. He had more attention coming out of the [2009 baseball] draft than anyone ever, and the lack of access has only increased the mystique.” (Hey, it worked for Garbo.)
Still, nobody would be changing menus to accommodate a kid pitcher whose ERA is as broad as the national debt. The cold truth is that the kid pitcher with the big hype has delivered on demand. Indeed, he has done something that seemed beyond human comprehension six weeks ago: He has passed Jason Heyward, who had a considerable head start, to become the rookie of the moment.
And that was why, as nice as Monday night was, something was missing. That something was Heyward, who didn’t start because of a bad thumb and afterward was placed on the disabled list. So it was left to Starsburg to carry the rookie banner alone, and he held up his end. Through six innings the Braves mustered four hits but couldn’t score.
Four of the first seven Braves reached, and then nobody did a thing. Strasburg hit 100 mph on the stadium radar gun with a delivery to Melky Cabrera in the third inning, and even if you know empirically that velocity doesn’t equal pitching excellence — Greg Maddux toiled here — it’s always a jolt to see triple figures in neon.
“The Braves are a tremendous challenge,” said Jim Riggleman, Washington’s manager, “and Stephen was up to the challenge.”
The Nats had a chance to score in the seventh. Being the Nats, they flubbed it. Alberto Gonzalez struck out with a runner on third and one out. (Tim Hudson was himself unyielding.) Then, on cue, the Braves broke through. Chipper Jones walked and Brian McCann singled and Ian Desmond muffed a double-play grounder — Riggleman: “We got the ball we wanted” — and finally Eric Hinske lofted a sacrifice fly.
Said Strasburg of his night: “It wasn’t good enough to win the game, period.” Then this: “I understand I’m not going to have lights-out stuff every time. I’m human.”
If this was Strasburg at his worst — and statistically it was — you wouldn’t want to catch him at his best. Or maybe you would, just to say you were there to witness. It was noteworthy that, after the seventh inning ended and the Braves had seized their five-run lead, at least 10,000 patrons rose to leave. They’d seen what they came to see. They’d seen Stephen Strasburg.