Strasburg in 97-98 mph range in win

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Top Washington Nationals prospect Stephen Strasburg won his minor league debut Sunday, throwing consistently in the 97-98 mph range over five innings for Harrisburg of the Double-A Eastern League.

Strasburg allowed four hits and four runs -- one earned -- with eight strikeouts and two walks. He also delivered an RBI double -- his first professional hit -- in Harrisburg's 6-4 victory over Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate Altoona before a more-than-capacity-crowd of 7,887.

Strasburg threw 82 pitches and left with Harrisburg leading 5-4. He allowed an earned run in the first inning on a double and single, then three unearned runs in the fourth, when Harrisburg made two errors.

Like other players for the Senators, Strasburg changed out of his jeans and polo shirt and pulled on his uniform. Like others, he grabbed a jelly doughnut from the pregame spread, which also featured jars of peanut butter and jelly and a plastic container of cheese balls ("Made with real cheese," the label promised).

Like others, he relaxed before his start by sitting on the fraternity-style green plaid couch and looking up at the lone, tiny TV. No flat screens here.

And like Harrisburg's other starting pitchers, Strasburg took the mound for his first start of the season knowing he was on a pitch count, with no chance of more than 85 or 90 tosses.

"All of our starters are the same," Harrisburg manager Randy Knorr explained before the game.

Well, not quite the same. Strasburg, of course, is the only one whose picture graced the special media credentials issued by the Curve's PR staff for Sunday's game.

"The other team is promoting him," noted reliever Drew Storen, another top Nationals prospect who got the save Sunday.

Strasburg's first professional pitch was an up-and-in ball to Jim Negrych, who eventually popped out to the shortstop.

"At the beginning, Stephen was a little anxious," Knorr said, "and once he settled down, he threw the ball very well."

Strasburg's first inning got a little rough after two outs, when he allowed Alex Presley's double off the base of the wall in right-center, followed by Miles Durham's RBI single to center.

Presley said Strasburg displayed "three really good pitches: fastball, changeup and his breaking ball," adding: "There's so much to worry about."

After walking Altoona catcher Kris Watts, Strasburg ended the inning by striking out Josh Harrison on a 97 mph fastball. He threw 24 pitches in the inning, 14 for strikes.

He didn't exactly live up to all the hype and hoopla, attention that prompted Harrisburg teammate Adam Fox to joke in the clubhouse beforehand, "It's a national holiday today. It's Stephen Strasburg Day."

Strasburg also is the only one who was the No. 1 overall pick in June's amateur draft, the only one who signed a record $15.1 million, four-year contract in August, the only one expected to be a member of the Nationals' rotation sometime this summer -- and, the club hopes, far beyond.

"I definitely was super-excited," Strasburg said in a monotone delivery that conveyed anything but excitement. "There was a lot of anticipation for this outing."

For good measure, he even delivered an RBI double in Harrisburg's three-run fifth inning for his first professional hit. He never got to bat in college and took a postgame dig at his San Diego State coach, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, saying: "I'm going to call Gwynn up tomorrow and let him have it."

Strasburg dominated for a spell, striking out five of seven batters in one stretch. In the second inning, he threw eight pitches -- and all eight were strikes. He showed off his big fastball, but also his slider-curve hybrid, which made one right-handed batter lean way back to get out of the way of a pitch that wound up bending back over the plate for a called strike.

What was it like to face Strasburg?

"Oh, the ball was coming out hot, for sure. He was definitely throwing the ball hard," Watts said.

He compared Strasburg's fastball to that of San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Watts faced in college.

A walk, two errors and two singles contributed to Altoona's big fourth inning, before Strasburg finished strong, with a strikeout and two groundouts in the fifth, his last inning.

Back inside the visiting clubhouse afterward, Strasburg set down the lineup card and baseball he collected as souvenirs. He paused to autograph a glossy photo of himself pitching and a few baseballs thrust his way.

And then, finally, Strasburg once again was like any other member of the Harrisburg Senators. He grabbed a black plastic plate and a black plastic fork, loaded up with a barbecue sandwich, baked beans and coleslaw, then plopped himself down on that plaid couch to eat and watch the Masters golf tournament on that tiny TV, right in time to see Tiger Woods attempt a putt.

How long will it be until people gather around TVs to watch Strasburg perform on significant stages? How much longer will he ply his trade in outposts like this one -- as opposed to big league cities such as New York and Philadelphia -- and on diamonds like this one -- as opposed to 40,000-plus stadiums such as Nationals Park, about 150 miles southeast from here?

"Obviously, as a baseball player, you'd like to say that you're playing at the highest level possible. But right now, there's things that I need to work on, and there's things that I need to improve on, and I'm going to focus on that right now," Strasburg said. "And hopefully my time comes soon."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.