Phenom has landed: Strasburg era begins

Phenom has landed: Strasburg era begins

WASHINGTON -- Tonight at 7:05 ET, a sellout crowd is expected to witness one of the greatest moments in Nationals history. That's when Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, makes his Major League debut against the Pirates at Nationals Park.

MLB.com will simulcast MLB Network's coverage of Strasburg's first game beginning with pregame coverage at 6:45 p.m., followed by the first four innings of Strasburg pitching (tops of innings 1-4).

It's arguably the most hyped debut in recent memory -- more than 200 members of the media are expected -- and for good reason. Strasburg dominated in his college career at San Diego State. Last year, he went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA in 15 starts for the Aztecs en route to being presented the Golden Spikes Award for the nation's top amateur baseball player. He struck out 195 batters with just 19 walks in 109 innings.

Stephen Strasburg

The domination on the mound carried over into the start of this season, his first in professional baseball, during which he went a combined 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings for Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse.

"I'm looking forward to it," said center fielder Nyjer Morgan, who gave Strasburg the nickname "Jesus" after watching him throw during Spring Training workouts. "It's the first time I've ever played behind this kind of presence. He is special. Just being able to play behind somebody with that caliber is pretty cool in my eyes."

Count catcher Ivan Rodriguez among those who would like to be behind the plate when Strasburg makes his debut. Rodriguez is on the 15-day disabled list because of a lower back strain, but hopes to be activated in time for Tuesday's game.

"I just want to come back to the team, be a contributor and win games for the team," Rodriguez said. "Of course, it's going to be a big deal on Tuesday. My goal is not just to play Tuesday night and be behind the plate for [Strasburg]. It's going to be a big night for him, the team and for the city of D.C.

"I would love to be on that stage, too. That's why I'm doing this -- all the preparation this weekend. But the most important thing is to be back in the lineup and contribute to the ballclub."

There will be a lot of celebration before and during the game. Filmmaker Ken Burns will throw out the first pitch and political journalists like Chris Wallace of Fox News and Al Hunt of Bloomberg News will be in attendance. Plenty of Strasburg T-shirts and memorabilia will be sold at the park.

"I've seen the hype a couple of times [in other sports], but I don't know about baseball," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I don't know how to explain it. It's good that we had a chance to draft him. Any time you draft guys and they have an immediate impact on the organization, it's good for everyone that is involved.

"He has a good enough head on his shoulders that he is here to pitch for us, to help us win. That's the most important thing. He wants to be part of the team and win."

In the eyes of pitching coach Steve McCatty, the last time a pitcher received so much hype was Rangers left-hander David Clyde in 1973. That year, Clyde was the first overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft and made his Major League debut less than a month after he was drafted at age 18.

But McCatty sees a difference between Clyde's debut and Strasburg's first big league game.

"The Internet, the coverage, ESPN and the Major League Baseball Network are building Stras up like we are seeing Walter Johnson or Cy Young in here," McCatty said. "When I talked to Stras, the best advice I gave him after he signed last year was, 'All you are going to be is Stephen Strasburg. You can't be Nolan Ryan, you can't be anybody else but Stephen.' That will be plenty good."

Strasburg's debut will be broadcast nationally through MLB.TV, and on MLB Network, with Bob Costas, Jim Kaat and John Smoltz calling the game against the Pirates live from Nationals Park.

Once the game starts, reliever Drew Storen expects Strasburg to concentrate on the game at hand. Storen -- who was the Nationals' second pick in the first round of the 2009 Draft and played with Strasburg in the Minors -- said Strasburg has a way of not letting the attention get to him.

"He has the right mindset, and he has the ability to shut off the pressure," Storen said. "He doesn't get caught up in the publicity. That's going to be the big thing for him. He will do what he does, and he will be good. I've never seen a guy that has been able to throw all that stuff out like that. I think he will be fine."

Said Zimmerman: "When he has asked questions or worried about things, we told him, 'There is a lot of pressure put on you obviously, but ultimately, when it comes down to it, it's about you and us. Don't worry about what anyone says.'"

McCatty is making sure that Strasburg concentrates on the game at hand. He and manager Jim Riggleman declined to talk about how many innings or pitches Strasburg will throw against Pittsburgh.

"We are going to see Stras pitch against the best hitters in the game, and the playing field kind of levels out, but I'm sure he is going to do great," McCatty said. "It looks like he has handled the pressure so well. He is such a down-to-earth kid. I don't think he buys into the hype. He likes being himself. He's a laid-back kid. He wants to compete. I don't think he feels the pressure about what's been written about him. The physical stuff is tremendous, but the person inside is pretty impressive to me."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.