So much about Stephen Strasburg's third major league start Friday night was similar to what we saw in his first two: the overpowering fastball and the head-snapping breaking ball; the high strikeout totals and the low hit totals; the looks of frustration on the faces of opposing hitters and of pure joy on the faces of the fans who crowded into Nationals Park for a rare sellout.
In fact, at casual glance one could be forgiven for thinking his outing against the White Sox was merely a replay of his scintillating debut on June 8 against the Pirates in which he struck out 14 and infused new life into his franchise and his sport. But, alas, this was a new night and thus there were a series of firsts for Strasburg and his growing legion of admirers (which on this night included noted White Sox fan Barack Obama) to digest: his first test against an opposing lineup with multiple power threats; his first bit of bad luck, which came when he allowed a first-inning run on an infield single, a bloop double and a groundout; and his first time pitching from behind throughout and needing his offense to get him off the hook.
The Nationals eventually did just that, tying the game 1-1 on Adam Dunn's seventh-inning double that helped preserve Strasburg's spotless record of 2-0. Even though the Nats went on to lose 2-1 in 11 innings, it could already be considered a victory for the Nationals by the time Strasburg ended his night by striking out Alexei Ramirez on a darting breaking ball in the top of the seventh. If the Nats needed further confirmation that Strasburg was every bit as good as advertised -- and after his first two eye-opening starts that shouldn't have been necessary -- they got it.
That confirmation didn't come as much from his stellar pitching line --- seven innings, four hits, no walks and 10 strikeouts --- as it did from the way he achieved it. His fastball still had plenty of life, but it lacked the intimidating velocity he had shown during his starts against the Pirates and Indians. Only twice did Strasburg's famous fastball reach triple digits, after he did so 12 times in his first two games. Still, during one stretch he retired 15 consecutive batters and did so by utilizing his fastball, curve and changeup with equal aplomb. Along the way, he looked as poised and in command as a 21-year-old making his third big league start can possibly look.
Perhaps most important to the Nationals brass that is already watching Strasburg with the overbearing attentiveness of parents looking after a newborn, he did all of it without breaking much of a sweat. After he burned through 95 pitches against the Indians on Sunday without making it out of the sixth inning, Strasburg was more economical with his pitches on Friday, needing just 85 of them to pitch seven full innings.
Just as impressive was that he did so without having to sacrifice strikeouts. There had been talk during the week that the Nationals might prefer it if the man in whom they are staking much of their future sacrificed K's for less glamorous but equally productive things like groundballs. On Friday, he got both. In the third inning, he got three outs with just 10 pitches, in the fourth, he needed just eight pitches to retire the side in order and in the fifth, just 10 again. And, oh yes, six of those nine outs came via the strikeout.
From the start, Strasburg was around the plate with each of his pitches and started 15 of 24 batters with strikes. His aggressiveness was on display early. After Juan Pierre led off the game with an infield hit in which he outraced Strasburg, who was covering, to first base, Omar Vizquel dumped a Texas Leaguer into short right field for a bloop double that moved Pierre to third. With Alex Rios, Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin --- the White Sox's three leading run producers -- due up, Strasburg attacked. He jumped ahead of Rios 0-2 before settling for a weak groundball to first that plated Pierre. He threw another first-pitch strike to Konerko, went up 1-2 in the count and put him away with a diving changeup and after falling behind Quentin 2-0 rebounded with three straight strikes to retire the side. That proved to be the only bit of trouble Strasburg encountered. No other runner reached second base against him and by the time he left, he had allowed just two more balls out of the infield.
At some point, Strasburg will face real adversity, and may even -- horrors! -- lose a game. At the very least, he won't always have sportswriters reaching for their thesauruses to find new ways to describe his brilliance. Friday night was not as goose-bump inducing as his outing against the Pirates. It may not have been a night that evoked comparisons to the greats of the game's past, from Walter Johnson to Bob Feller to Nolan Ryan, the way his debut did, either. It was just a night for the Nationals to savor their present while being every bit as excited that their future still appears as bright as they've dreamed.