Strasburg says Hello, Altoona!

MIKE RUTSEY, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:07 PM ET

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Sunday, the No. 1 pitching prospect in all of baseball, the Washington Nationals Stephen Strasburg, is scheduled to make his first pro start for double-A Harrisburg in a game against Altoona.

If it was being televised back to the nation’s capital, chances are it would draw more eyes than the Milwaukee-Nationals game being played at Nationals Field.

One of the highlights of Opening Day on Monday was the game in Atlanta where the Braves phenom, outfielder Jason Heyward, who has received just as much hype as Strasburg, absolutely murdered the first pitch he saw in his first Major League at-bat and launched it deep over the fence in right field for a three-run home run. The fans in Atlanta went wild and Heyward will be a top drawing card wherever he goes for the rest of the season.

The fans in Washington would like to feel that jolt of excitement as well and although they are tickled pink in anticipation of the Redskins season, what with the unexpected trade acquisition of veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, they instead are being asked to patiently await the arrival of the anointed one in Strasburg.

Strasburg isn’t just good, he’s something special. At least that’s what everyone has been writing about him. He’s the skinny kid with the triple-digit heater and has a changeup that has the same movement as a splitter. All that’s lacking is some pro experience.

Nationals’ fans will be close to marching in the streets, like angry tea party protesters, if as expected he carves up double-A hitters and demand that he be called up to give some cred, a reason for hope, to a franchise that has been dragging along rock bottom.

Strasburg, the celebrated No. 1 pick in last year’s June draft and the right-hander who received a record contract worth $15.1 million US, was dominant in three spring training starts. He went 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA, allowed eight hits, walked one and struck out 12 in nine innings.

Still, it was not enough for the 21-year-old phenom to make the grade.

“What he did out there just verified what everybody had been saying. ... He did everything you wanted him to do. I don’t think camp could have gone any better for him,” manager Jim Riggleman said at the time.

The guy who is in the hot seat and is putting the brakes on Stasburg’s career is general manager Mike Rizzo and although he states unequivocally that his prize possession will not be rushed, no doubt the pressure will mount with every Strasburg success coupled with each and every Nationals loss, of which there will be many.

“We’re not sure when to expect him,” Rizzo said cautiously the other day. “He’s going to progress on his own rate and when we feel he’s ready to pitch here in the big leagues to stay, he’ll be here. We have no time frame on him and there’s no schedule to get him up here.”

Rizzo knows that in Strasburg, the franchise has something special.

“It was very exciting to see him pitch this spring,” he said “And for me it was just as exciting to see how he interacted in the clubhouse and how he got a taste of the major leagues. To come in with the amount of hype he had and to fit in as well as he did and to be as humble and as good a teammate as he showed, it was kind of the final phase of his development.”

So why wait?

“There are plenty of things that he has to work on,” Rizzo said. “He has never pitched in professional baseball, he’s never pitched on a five-day rotation. The everydayness of the professional game is different from what he’s used to.

“He has some things to work on, specifically from the stretch, the controlling of the running game, the fielding part of the game, backing up bases, things he wasn’t accustomed to in college.”

The wait, as far as veteran Washington catcher Ivan Rodriguez believes, will be a short one.

“He’s very good, he’s going to be here pretty soon,” Rodriguez said. “He has got tremendous stuff, can throw pretty much everything for a strike.

“He has gone to the minor leagues to work on things but after a couple of starts there, I hope he can be back here.”

Pudge isn’t alone. There are thousands of Nationals fans with similar sentiments.

mike.rutsey@sunmeida.ca


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