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Re-watching Stephen Strasburg’s electric Washington Nationals debut

Last night, MLB Network aired a re-run of Stephen Strasburg’s first start for the Washington Nationals, so we thought we’d re-live that day...

Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

June 8th, 2010. A date many Washington Nationals fans will remember exactly where they were.

Many were in the 40,315 sellout crowd, only the second sellout of the season for the Nats after Opening Day. The remaining Nationals fans were likely glued to a TV screen or radio waiting for first pitch as the dawn of a new era for the team was about to begin.

Almost a year to the day (June 9th, 2009) after becoming the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, it was time for Stephen Strasburg to make his much-anticipated big league debut.

Yesterday, MLB Network re-aired notable debuts for some of baseball current stars. With one of the most memorable debuts in recent memory, Strasburg got a primetime 8pm slot.

Given the convenient re-airing and not a whole lot else to write about, we thought we’d take a look back at that day and re-live how it all began for the 2019 World Series MVP.

MLB Network aired their own broadcast of the game with Bob Costas calling the game alongside John Smoltz and Jim Kaat — sorry Bob Carpenter and Rob Dibble.

Trying to fit the game into a two-hour slot, they skipped all of the pre-game build-up, of which there was plenty. MLB Network sent the full bonanza to D.C. for the game to cover arguably the most anticipated major league debut ever.

The hype around the game was unprecedented at the time and almost too much to live up to. But for those who had followed Strasburg’s career at San Diego State, it was entirely justified.

However, even for the even-keeled Strasburg, there were early nerves with his first two fastballs fading out of the zone. On the third pitch, Andrew McCutchen attacked a fastball down the middle for a lineout that allowed everyone to breathe a little and settle in.

The first inning finished with former National Lastings Milledge getting a hearty smattering of boos as he stepped up to the plate. Strasburg made easy work of him though, striking out the outfielder on three pitches as the crowd roared into life in a playoff-style atmosphere.

Apparently, there were bottom halves of innings in this game too. Ryan Zimmerman, following an All-Star campaign in the previous season, cracked a solo shot out to left-center in the first, gifting the team’s new phenom an early lead.

With that lead, Strasburg took the mound in the second and provided his first wow moment.

Down 3-0 in the count to Garrett Jones, the right-hander blew three-straight wicked two-seam fastballs in the upper-90s past Jones, with the last two swings and misses for a strikeout.

MLB Network then skipped an uneventful bottom of the second for the Nats and went to the top of the third. So maybe there weren’t bottom halves of innings after all...

It was clear in this inning that the Pirates had no idea what just hit them when Strasburg unleashed his ridiculous low-80s curveball. Knees buckled, hitters flinched, and the eccentric home plate umpire Tom Hallion gave a trademark fist punch strike three call on a magical curveball that froze Jason Jaramillo in the third.

Pittsburgh Pirates_Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

In the fourth though, the 21-year-old ran into trouble while the broadcast team seemingly played a game of who could name-drop the biggest name with Bob Feller, Roger Clemens, and Walter Johnson all coming up in relation to Strasburg at various points.

After two singles and a double play to start the fourth, Delwyn Young took Strasburg deep on a low changeup. It wasn’t a bad 1-0 pitch by any means, but it proved that Strasburg was mortal.

Another skipped half-inning went by before Strasburg breezed easy 98mph and 99mph fastballs by the Pirates in the fifth, striking out a pair to bring his running total to eight.

Not all of those fastballs had pinpoint command, but at this point in his career, it didn’t need to be, his stuff was so overpowering. It’s a testament to the pitcher Strasburg has now become with a few ticks off the velocity, yet so much more control of all his pitches.

Next MLB Network showed a fairly uneventful bottom of the fifth that seemed to be purely because Strasburg hit in the inning and grounded out up the middle, allowing me to catch up with typing some of the above. So, thank you, MLB Network.

For his next act, Strasburg struck out the side in the sixth giving him 11 so far. If you need a reminder just how disgusting his stuff back then, the three pitches that ended those at-bats were a 91mph(!) changeup, a 99mph fastball, and a 92mph(!!) changeup. Good luck with that.

In the bottom half of the sixth, the Nats re-took the lead. Zimmerman notched a broken bat single before Adam Dunn cranked an absolute bomb into the second deck in right field. Josh Willingham followed it up with a homer of his own to make it 4-2 Nationals.

Smoltz thought the home runs, which put Strasburg in line for the win, would spell the end of the remarkable debut. But manager Jim Riggleman was unmoved by the inning and sent him out for one final inning despite 81 pitches which approached the rough 90-pitch limit.

The crowd gave another loud roar at the decision before settling in for more dominance.

Just like the previous inning, Strasburg simply outmatched the hapless Pirates hitters, striking out the side again. The fans knew this was the last frame for its new hero and every strike was greeted as if it was one out closer to victory in Game 7 of the World Series.

As that final 99mph fastball blazed past Andy LaRoche for Strasburg’s 14th punchout of the game, the non-existent roof was blown off. That cheer likely still ranks among the top five, maybe even top three, loudest moments at Nationals Park ever.

“Unleash all the superlatives,” Costas said to close the seventh inning. “They all seem to apply.”

As the Nationals warmed up for the top of the eighth, Strasburg received a well-deserved curtain call from the home crowd, several of them were already decked out in #37 jerseys before he even threw a pitch for his new team.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

At the time, Strasburg’s 14 strikeouts were a single-game record for the Nationals since the franchise moved to Washington from Montreal in 2005 and he did it in his debut.

As the game wound to a close, the broadcast was still spellbound by what they had just witnessed from Strasburg. The capacity crowd was also still mostly intact through the eighth and ninth innings despite the headline attraction already being out of the game.

Not as many people as you would think would remember the 5-2 final score of the game. What everyone will remember though, is the number of strikeouts that the starter recorded.

It was only one game, but somehow, Strasburg managed to even exceed the lofty expectations that were placed on him in that one game. He dazzled a national audience with mind-boggling stuff and announced his presence with aplomb.

We all know now how the story goes. The shutdown in 2012. The injury-plagued seasons. The postseason dominance that helped lead the Nationals to a World Series crown.

That story hasn’t gone exactly how some imagined, but the debut of Stephen Strasburg was a truly franchise-altering moment that, for one day, gave D.C. baseball fans a tantalizing glimpse of what was in this team’s future...