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Strasburg exceeds the hype, and somehow remains immune to it

Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg never looked at a scouting report of his opponent.

"I was just trusting everything he called," Strasburg said after the game, referring to his future Hall of Fame catcher, Ivan Rodriguez.

Strasburg said it so earnestly that maybe he didn't understand the magnitude of what he had just accomplished. Hailed as the savior of baseball in D.C., the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft, whom some scouts described as the greatest pitching prospect of all time, had somehow managed to match or even exceed the exorbitant expectations placed upon him by striking out a Nationals-record 14 batters in seven innings of no-walk, two-run ball in a 5-2 win over the Pirates (RECAP | BOX SCORE). He interspersed 100 mph fastballs between curveballs and changeups that plummeted to the earth as if gravity's pull suddenly grew stronger just before home plate.

"I can't really put it into words any better than you saw," said manager Jim Riggleman. "It was just a great night for baseball in Washington."

As commentator George Will, a Nationals season-ticket holder who was among the sellout crowd of 40,315, once wrote, "Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence."

Baseball lovers in the nation's capital have had few such examples since the franchise relocated to Washington in 2005. The Nationals had consecutive 100-loss seasons in 2008 and '09 and underwent identity fraud and bonus-skimming scandals that led to the ouster of the general manager and sullied the franchise's reputation.

While drafting Bryce Harper No.1 and adding such a prodigious talent into the organization on Monday night was more important to the club's future than one early June game against the Pirates on Tuesday night, Strasburg's start provided necessary tangible evidence of progress.

He generated anticipation of excellence at Nationals Park -- "Strasmus," the locals called it -- and the vast majority of the crowd stuck around for the game's final innings, even after Strasburg had departed. Only three times this season had the Nationals previously exceeded 30,000 fans at a home game: Opening Day, one of three games against Beltway rival Baltimore and last Friday's game against the Reds when there was a run on tickets because of speculation that Strasburg might start that night instead.

It was a night that attracted fans for more than a ballpark dinner of Ben's Chili Bowl, more than the chance for a D.C. transplant to see his or her childhood team and more than the entertainment of a business client. They were willing to set ticket-resale records on StubHub and stood in line for hours to nab standing-room tickets to do so. They were there to see the Nationals.

"It's the obvious that sells," Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, said. "We've finally seen a player who, prior to performance at the major league level, has changed the value of that franchise."

What's not obvious about a 100 mph fastball? Even casual fans understand power pitching; they can see the speed and hear the glove's crack. If a pitcher has a deadly curveball, they can see the ball's arc and the buckle of the hitter's knees. But if a pitcher is effective because he has late movement, Boras noted, that's often only evident to the catcher and the hitter. It helps teams win games but doesn't create rock concert atmospheres like there was on Tuesday night in the District's Navy Yards.

When Strasburg's changeup hit 90 on the radar gun and the opposing starter, Jeff Karstens, often only hit 89 on his fastball, that's intelligible to everyone.

So too was the body language of Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche, who was the final batter Strasburg faced. As Strasburg spun a two-out, seventh-inning curveball toward the plate, the Pirates' third baseman bent backwards at the knees as if he were attempting the limbo, trying to slink underneath the baseball seemingly headed toward him. Instead, it broke over the plate for a strike.

On Strasburg's next pitch, also a curve, LaRoche bailed out, faintly swinging at the down-and-in pitch as his front foot stepped halfway down the third-base line. With that pair of 83 mph curveballs firmly in LaRoche's short-term memory, Strasburg then blew a high 99 mph fastball, to which the Pirate's swing was but an ornamental wave.

"He's pitched one game, but if he keeps going like that, he could be the best pitcher in the league," said Pittsburgh shortstop Ronny Cedeno, likening Strasburg's "unbelievable stuff" to that of the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez, who happens to have been the game's best pitcher so far this season.

There will, of course, be hiccups along the way, even against a cherry-picked first opponent like the Pirates' anemic lineup. Pittsburgh got two singles to start the fourth and, though a double play helped, Strasburg's 1-0 changeup to Delwyn Young caught a little too much of the plate, resulting in a two-run homer.

Such a performance as Tuesday's -- Strasburg became the fifth 21-year-old pitcher to strike out at least 14 without walking anyone -- ought to sustain the interest in each of his starts, though so far Strasburg has proved immune to his own hype.

"It's pretty impressive how he deals with all the attention," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was the No. 4 overall pick in 2005 and made his major league debut that same year, said in May. "It's almost unfair. Young guys shouldn't have to go through that stuff that early."

It was the same on Tuesday. Three-and-a-half hours before Strasburg threw his first pitch, the only television in the Nationals' clubhouse not showing an endless procession of his own face was the one in front of the pitcher himself. While several of his teammates were engaged in watching the pregame shows -- reinforcing that the hype was, perhaps, rightfully nauseating, left fielder Josh Willingham made fake wretching noises at the sight of Strasburg's sick curveball -- an unimpressed Strasburg lounged in a cushy chair watching the Discovery Channel's Swamp Loggers.

And after the game he showed why maybe it was a good thing he wasn't charged with recalling a detailed scouting report.

"The only thing I really remember is the first pitch -- ball inside -- everything else is just such a blur," Strasburg said. "At one point I lost track of how many innings I threw. I was like, 'You know what? I'm just going to go out there and have fun.' It's amazing.

"It's kind of like when you get married, you kind of go into it wanting to remember everything -- and once it's done, you can't remember a single thing."

The same won't be said for everyone in D.C. who watched him work, who saw the triple-digit fastball, who could barely believe the break of the curveball -- they'll remember this one for a long, long time.