News & Politics

A Changeup We Can Believe In

Stephen Strasburg takes the mound and Nationals Nation comes alive.

“Strikeouts are boring,” catcher Crash Davis tells young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh in the greatest baseball movie ever made, Bull Durham. “Besides that, they're fascist.” On Tuesday night at Nationals Park, they were anything but as Stephen Strasburg made a dominant major league debut, and the team's fans proved themselves a unified, passionate base capable of rocking the Navy Yard stadium and worthy of the talents the Nationals are assembling in it.

Strasburg, hyped as the best prospect of all time and burdened with the task of buoying the transplanted franchise, arrived on the mound to the White Stripes “Seven Nation Army.” It's a song that boasts “I'm gonna fight 'em all / A seven-nation army couldn't hold me back,” and promises “Everyone knows about it / From the Queen of England to the hounds of Hell.” If the entrance music seemed intemperate through Strasburg's first inning, which he began with a series of balls, Strasburg set about dispelling that impression in the second when he struck out the side while giving up a lone single. He ended the game with 14 strikeouts, one shy of the record for a rookie in a major league debut of 15 set by Karl Spooner for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954 and tied just once, by J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros in 1971, though unlike Richard, Strasburg didn't allow a single walk.

Alex Remington, a blogger for the leading sabermetrics site FanGraphs and for Yahoo Sports, says Strasburg's feat places him in an elite class, even if he didn't break or match a record. The last first-year major leaguer to notch 14 strikeouts without surrendering a pass was Kerry Wood, the Cubs rookie, who recorded 20 Ks in his fifth game in the majors in 1998. Dwight Gooden recorded 41 strikeouts and a lone walk in the last three games of his rookie career in 1984, but he had far more time to settle into a rhythm before achieving that level of dominance, Remington notes. Nationals fans hoped for historic excellence, and they got it, curtailed only by manager Jim Riggleman's careful watch over his starter's pitch count.

Even Pirates fans weren't disappointed, despite the final 5-2 score in the Nationals' favor.

"We were kind of wavering on whether to make the drive or not, but a chance like this doesn't come very often,” a father and son who paid $100 for their tickets and drove down from York, Pa., told The Washingtonian. “It was well worth it, it was just a fantastic performance."

But it was the reactions—and actions—of Nationals fans that mattered tonight. Would they fill the park? The team reported a 40,315-ticket sellout, but empty seats were clearly visible throughout the park and throughout the evening, particularly in the stadium's top tier and behind home plate. Would they make noise without having be asked to do it by a disembodied voice and animated scoreboard graphics first? That they certainly did. Nationals Park is an open stadium that diffuses sound rather than concentrating it, but the cheering was unrestrained and sustained.

Dara Lind, an editor for Wunderkammer Magazine, Yankees fan, and frequent visitor to Nationals Park, says it was the first time she'd heard truly spontaneous “Let's Go, Nats!” cheers, and that she was moved by the sense that the franchise had reached a turning point. The chants for Strasburg even cut into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” traditionally a rouser of even the most tepid crowds. Across the stadium, fans got to their feet every time Strasburg's pitch count reached two strikes, and they rose from their seats frequently.

"Lord knows that the non-Nats fan next to me was by the end worried that he was cheating on the Yankees and using 'we' to refer to the Nats," she said. 

Even on a night like this, Nationals Park still has a minor league air of eagerness to please about it. Its overly-earnest in-crowd pitchmen and psych-up graphics seem rooted in the assumption that no one will care about the game unless they're prodded into perpetual anticipation. The stadium announcer, either forgetting himself—or unable to believe the Nationals were entering a new era—began the Presidents' Race (the stadium's best, most charming innovation) by calling it “the main event.” Lind spotted misnumbered seats at multiple locations in the stadium.  Clearly, the atmosphere and staging of Nats games aren't going to change over night.

And the truth is, the team isn't either. Strasburg's performance may have been remarkable, but it'll be four more days until he gets another shot at another hapless opponent, the Cleveland Indians. Despite the buzz over the Nationals' choice of Bryce Harper as the first overall pick in this year's draft, Harper is four years younger than Strasburg, and will take longer to arrive in Washington. Nationals fans will have to be patient and passionate as they wait for a team capable of lighting up Navy Yard 81 nights a year, even without the aid of fireworks.

“If they're going to stick to the Tampa Bay model [investing in player development], they need to be bad for a little while longer and keep drafting well,” said Nick Baumann, an assistant editor at Mother Jones and long-time Red Sox fan. “But he was filthy, and those moments towards the end were unprecedented in Nats baseball.”

 Jason Koebler contributed reporting to this story.

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