1. Stephen Strasburg's Debut: June 8th, Nationals Park. Washington Nationals vs Pittsburgh Pirates in front of 40,315 fans in D.C. and a national audience on tv. The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" cranked loud on the stadium's speakers as he warms up and then as every camera in the park flashes, throws his first pitch. The first pitch in the career of the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick, widely considered a once-in-a-generation prospect, is a 97 mph fastball low and inside to Pirates' outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Stephen Strasburg had arrived. Asked after the game what he remembered about his debut, the 22-year-old right-hander said it was this pitch, and really...nothing else:
Stephen Strasburg: "You know the only thing I really remember is the first pitch, and it was a ball inside. Everything else is just such a blur. At one point I lost track of how many innings I threw, and it was like, man, you know what, I'm just going to go out there and have fun and it's amazing, you know, it's kinda like when you get married and everything, you go into it wanting to remember everything and once it's done you can't remember a single thing."
Two fastballs after his first pitch, Strasburg records his first out when McCutchen rolls a weak grounder to short for the Nats' rookie shortstop Ian Desmond to handle. Over the next 7.0 IP, Strasburg allows just 4 hits, 2 ER and 1 HR, striking out 14 Pirates on 94 pitches, 65 of them strikes. Strasburg leaves the game with a 4-2 lead, in line for his first Major League win. It's how he ended the outing, however, that really impressed any fan who saw it, as the rookie starter struck out eight of the last nine batters he faced, including the last seven in a row to conclude his debut, with the roar of the sold-out crowd after the final three-pitch K unlike anything anyone has heard out of the D.C. Faithful before or since.
Asked about the final strikeout of Pittsburgh first baseman Andy LaRoche in the post game press conference, Strasburg said, "It definitely brought back memories to the 23-strikeout game at San Diego State and the no-hitter there, adrenaline was definitely flowing there and I was just going to throw the ball as hard as I can and luckily I was able to put it where he wasn't swinging." By the time he came back out for a curtain call he had won over each and every fan in the nation's capital, meeting any skepticism about whether or not he could live up to the hype with one of the more electrifying debuts in decades. Asked if he had any idea what it meant to the fans of the Nats, who'd suffered through back-to-back 100-loss seasons and saw him, fairly or not, as the start of something new, Strasburg said he wasn't, "...too sure, I mean there's a lot of fans there, there's a great atmosphere, I really felt like everybody was pulling for me, you know, good or bad I knew they were by my side, and I just went out there and had fun."
In 12 starts and 68.0 IP, the former SDSU Aztecs' right-hander struck out 92 (12.2 K/9) and walked just 17 (2.3 BB/9), while holding opponents to 56 hits, 5 HR's and 25 runs total, 22 of them earned. The final pitch he threw in his August 21st start against Philadelphia will be the last pitch he throws until late next season, but when I asked in a recent teleconference if the injury that ended his season overshadowed what he was able to accomplish in his rookie campaign, Strasburg said that was up to us, the writers on the line with him and around the country to decide, but in his mind, "I went up there, I stirred up the baseball world well enough that it had more people becoming Nats fans and I know they're going to be there when I come back in a year, so I'm not too worried about it and I'm going to work as hard as I possibly can to get back out there and show everybody what I have to bring to the table." The D.C. Faithful already know what he brings to the table. And his return will likely be every bit the event his debut was.
2. "Sign Adam Dunn!!": With the entire baseball world speculating on who would acquire the Nats' big middle-of-the-order bat, Adam Dunn, the Washington Nationals went into the 2010 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline with a specific return on their power bat in mind and when they didn't get the offer they wanted, the Washington Nationals and DC GM Mike Rizzo didn't blink or accept less than fair value in return:
"The reason that we didn't trade Adam Dunn," DC GM Mike Rizzo explained in a post deadline press conference, "...is that we never got a deal that we thought was equal or greater value to Adam Dunn. We were on the receiving end of the calls, we weren't making the calls, we got a lot of interest in Adam and just didn't see an equal return to what Adam Dunn brings to the ballclub on and off the field."
Asked by reporters immediately after the Non-Waiver Deadline had passed if the Nats had to sign Dunn to justify the decision to not trade him, the DC GM said simply, "We are going to talk extension with Adam Dunn's representatives, we're certainly not going to discuss that with the media. Adam Dunn is a big part of our ballclub, we've shown that by not trading him for lesser value." As the season came to an end however, with Mr. Rizzo stating in interviews that accepting the draft picks the Nats would receive in return should Dunn depart via free agency rather than re-up in Washington appealed to him as a former scout, the D.C. Faithful decided to make their own feelings known.
"Sign Adam Dunn!" "Sign Adam Dunn!" as the Nats wrapped up their 2010 schedule at home a certain segment of the fanbase made sure to let the Nats know what they wanted. "Sign Adam Dunn" chants emerged from a normally appreciative but not-necessarily assertive crowd, who'd decided that they had to have their voices heard. Adam Dunn heard them, telling Nats Insider.com's Mark Zuckerman, as quoted in an article entitled, "Sign Adam Dunn? Fans say yes":
"'It's starting to become home,' [Dunn] said. 'The way the fans have received me, it's good. I don't know how else to put it. That's something that doesn't happen often.'"
In two seasons as the Nats' BMOTOB, Adam Dunn's connected for 76 home runs, falling short of 40 HR's two-years-in-a-row in D.C. after having hit 40+ for the previous five seasons. Dunn's hit 65 doubles and driven in 208 runs, with a .265/.375/.536 slash line in 2010 and a .264/.378/.533 line combined in his two seasons as a National. How exactly the Nats think they'll replace that offensive production (even if there are signs of decline) is unclear, with the options thus far mentioned less than appealing to most in NatsTown. But it's not just the fans. Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore quoted the Nats' FOF™, the Face of the Franchise, Ryan Zimmerman expressing a sentiment similar to that which the fans shouted throughout the final homestand in an article entitled, "Adam Dunn's homer sends Nationals past Phillies", in which the normally press-and-controversy shy Nat openly shared his own opinion:
"'I think we've all said enough,' Zimmerman said, before saying some more. 'If they don't sign him, they better find someone good to replace him. I think all of us think that. I think, more important, all the fans think that.'"
The fans want it, his teammates want it, Adam Dunn's on record saying he wants to stay. Much to Adam Dunn's dismay it's been one of the bigger stories all year, and will continue to be a big story this winter as Dunn tests the free agent market to see if he can find the long-term deal he was denied before he signed in D.C. Has the Nats' big middle-of-the-order bat hit his last Hondo-esque HR (as a Nat) in Nationals Park?
3. In Rizzo We Trust: It began in the fall of 2009 with the hiring of eighteen front office execs from around baseball who joined DC GM Mike Rizzo in Washington because, in the general manager's own words, as quoted by Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell in an 11/19/09 article entitled, "This National intelligence estimate is decidedly favorable":
"They know this is a baseball shop."
Roy Clark, the Atlanta Braves' Scouting Director for the previous eleven seasons, who, according to the Post's Mr. Boswell, had been Nats' President Stan Kasten's first choice for assistant GM under Jim Bowden, became Mike Rizzo's Asst. GM and the Vice President of Player Personnel. Davey Johnson came on as a senior advisor to the GM. Johnny DiPuglia, who'd spent ten years in the Red Sox' scouting department, left his job as Boston's Latin American Scouting Coordinator to become the Nats' Director of Latin American Operations. Rizzo, the former D-Backs' Director of Scouting assembled what the soon-to-be-ex-President Mr. Kasten described to Mr. Boswell as a group of "wise old owls," who subscribed to the Rizzo regime's philosophy, "We want our eyes and the numbers to agree...But we'll lean toward the scout," as Mr. Rizzo told the WaPost writer.
2010 began with the news that the Nationals had scouted Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman and they surprised some when in early January they emerged as one of two teams, along with the Cincinnati Reds, who stayed in it til the end but drew a line financially speaking and wouldn't cross it. When they missed out on Chapman, the Nats shifted their focus to another international free agent, as Stan Kasten told ESPN 980's The Sports Fix's Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro in a July 2010 interview, "we turned our attention to whoever was next on our list and I will tell you [Yunesky] Maya was very high on our list at that time," and the Nats' eventually signed the 28-year-old right-hander in late July and had him on the mound, perhaps prematurely, in September. Adam Kennedy, (one of Jim Riggleman's big regrets?), was added to the infield when Orlando Hudson signed elsewhere. Matt Capps was signed after Pittsburgh non-tendered him and eventually flipped for Twins' catching prospect Wilson Ramos. Jason Marquis was a bit of a disappointment, but if he has a good year next year in the second season of his two-year deal, he too can be flipped for prospects. Pudge Rodriguez gave the Nats some veteran leadership behind the plate.
But more important than anything they were able to do on the free agent market, what Rizzo's front office accomplished in the 2010 Draft is what impressed everyone around baseball. Signing 25 of the top 26 selections, including the no.1 overall pick, Bryce Harper, who got a 5-year/$9.9M dollar major league deal, 2nd Round pick Sammy Solis, who got a $2 million dollar bonus, 4th Round pick, A.J. Cole, a potential 1st Rounder who dropped to the 4th Round because of a collegiate commitment, signed for $1M, and 12th rounder Robbie Ray received a $799,000 bonus. As the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell summed up the front office additions and change in philosophy in a chat entitled, "Redskins, Stephen Strasburg, Nats and more -- Ask Boswell":
"The ownership has learned that the (only) bargains are in signing young players and international players, so they are trying to win that battle with the first step being the enormous upgrade of their scouting system..."
Year one of the Rizzo Regime is in the books. In Rizzo We Trust?
4. Bryce Harper Signs: "The Nationals are very, very pleased to announce the first pick on the 2010 Draft is outfielder Bryce Harper from the College of Southern Nevada." - DC GM Mike Rizzo
For the second straight Draft, the Nats, picking first overall, took a player thought of in scouting circles as a once-in-a-generation talent. The 17-year-old catcher turned outfielder Bryce Harper's image was rendered perfectly in New York Times' writer Alan Schwarz's pre-draft article entitled, "At 17, Baseball’s Next Sure Thing: Bryce Harper", where the College of Southern Nevada catcher was described by scouts as, "...a tape-measure-testing, laser-throwing, eyeblack-oozing baseball cyborg." The Nats' Director of Scouting, Kris Kline, described Harper in a post draft press conference as being, "a cross between a Larry Walker-type guy," and, "...a little bit of J.D. Drew the way his hands work through the zone." Assistant GM and VP of Player Personnel Roy Clark who'd been watching Harper for over two years before joining the Nats and helping Washington make the decision to select him said the Nats had, "...scout[ed] him extensively," and come to the conclusion that Harper had, "...a chance to be a special type player on the field and special person off the field."
In the best draft year performance he could've hoped for, Harper hit for a ridiculous .442/.524/.986 slash line in a wood bat league (no PING!) while playing with and against players who were for the most part two years older than the SI cover kid and he ended his first season at CSN with 22 doubles, 4 triples, 29 HR's and 89 RBI's in 62 games and 215 at bats. Like the '09 no.1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg, however, Harper held out and didn't sign until the very last minutes before the mid-August deadline for inking this year's picks, so he saw no competitive action after his collegiate season ended, and is now in the Florida Instructional League testing his talents against some of the top young players in the country as the Nationals decide whether or not to include him on the Arizona Fall League roster where he'd play against some of the top prospects in baseball.
The Nationals signed 25 of their top 26 picks this season, with Harper receiving a 5-year/$9.9M dollar major league deal which was the highest total ever given to a position player a year after the Nats set the standard for pitchers with the 4-year/$15.1M dollar deal they gave Strasburg. Washington's widely considered to have had the best draft class in baseball this season a year after taking two first round picks in '09, both of whom made it to the majors in their draft year. Harper's not likely to do the same, but he's already been tagged the right fielder of the future, be it in 2011, '12 or '13...
5. McCatty Slaps Dugout Wall: Stephen Strasburg stood on the mound in Philadelphia in a sweat-soaked gray Nats away uniform with the red stirrup socks pulled high and the navy blue curly-W cap pulled down low over his forehead. The Nats' starter made several obviously frustrated but subtle motions to the Nats' bench asking for Washington's manager, trainer and pitching coach to join him on the mound following a changeup to Philly outfielder Domonic Brown that had caused a pain sharp enough for Strasburg to yank his arm back and noticeably grimace. It was the 53rd pitch he'd thrown that day, and the last he threw in his rookie campaign. The 23-year-old right-hander reportedly argued to be allowed to remain in the game, but was overruled, and as the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick disappeared down the dugout steps and into the visiting team's clubhouse in Citizens Bank Park, Nationals' pitching coach Steve McCatty took his anger out on a dugout wall with a pronounced slap that told anyone paying attention that he knew what had just happened to the top arm in the Nats' organization. Did he know that Strasburg had torn his ulner collateral ligament? Who knows? Anyone who's seen an accute injury occur to a pitcher's elbow probably could have guessed, but it wasn't until DC GM Mike Rizzo made the official announcement six days later that the extent of the injury was revealed, "After reviewing the MRI Arthrogram last night, we've come to the conclusion that Stephen Strasburg has a significant tear of his ulnar collateral ligament that will probably require Tommy John Surgery." McCatty's slap of the dugout wall expressed all Nats fan's frustrations.