Phillies to find out if Strasburg is hype or historical

Phillies are impressed with the fact that Stephen Strasburg can spot four pitches.
Phillies are impressed with the fact that Stephen Strasburg can spot four pitches.
Posted: August 20, 2010

In this Season of the Phenom, baseball fans are left to wonder which of the heralded rookie position players has the stuff to make the jump from potentially great to true and enduring superstardom.

Is it the Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward?

The New York Mets' Ike Davis?

The San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey?

The Florida Marlins' Mike Stanton?

And what about the Phillies' own late entry into the discussion, Domonic Brown?

But there is no such debate regarding first-year impact pitchers of 2010. The guy who has generated the most buzz, not only for now but for the foreseeable future, is Washington Nationals righthander Stephen Strasburg.

If the hype is to believed, the 6-4, 220-pound Strasburg is a dazzling amalgamation of various Hall of Famer hurlers, already a mythic figure at the tender age of 22. He has a crackling fastball with movement, a sharp-breaking curve and a plus changeup, all of which he throws with the command of a veteran.

No wonder the Nationals acceded to the former San Diego State standout's demands and gave him a record $15.1 million signing bonus moments before the Aug. 17, 2009, deadline for getting deals done. Sports Illustrated called him the "most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball."

Strasburg (5-3, 2.97 ERA, 86 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings), who already has spent a stint on the disabled list with an inflammation in his pitching shoulder - which scratched him from a scheduled start against the Phillies last month - finally faces the two-time defending National League champions when the Nats go against Kyle Kendrick (8-5, 4.45) tomorrow night in Citizens Bank Park.

The Bank has been sold out for 100 consecutive home dates, which is what one would expect given the Phillies' heady run of success in reaching the last three postseasons. But even if that were not the case, Strasburg's first appearance in a new major league stadium would likely result in a sellout or close to it. Fans everywhere want to see if the kid is as good as advertised, and why not? In his big-league debut on June 8, at Washington, Strasburg struck out 14 in seven innings as the Nationals clipped the Pirates, 5-2.

In his minor league stints earlier this season with the Double A Harrisburg Senators and Triple A Syracuse Chiefs, Strasburg was a combined 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched.

Brown, who hit his second major league home run on Wednesday, recalls how it was to dig in against Strasburg in the minors.

"It's very, very nasty," Brown said when asked about Strasburg's stuff. "It's electric, man. It's off the charts. You almost never see somebody that age throwing like that.

"I mean, you expect something like that from a Roy Halladay, but a kid with, like, half a season in the minors? Forget it," Brown said. "It's not supposed to happen this soon. That's what some of the older players tell me."

Shane Victorino said he never believes hype, since it is usually created by a media horde whose feeding frenzy for fresh storylines is rarely sated. But he is interested in getting his first up-close glimpse at Strasburg, to see if, in this case, all the attention is actually justified.

"Y'all created the hype. The media created it. The players didn't," said Victorino, who said those who play the game and not just report on it are less apt to leap onto trendy bandwagons.

"That said, of course I'm curious to see Strasburg up close. I'm curious because he's shown what he can do. I mean, the guy averages 96 to 100 [mph] with his fastball, 88 to 90 with his changeup. He has a great curveball and command of all his pitches. Of course, there's anticipation to see how good this kid really is, although I think we all know."

Greg Gross, the Phillies' 58-year-old batting coach, has seen a lot of great and near-great pitchers and he has a pretty good idea of what makes them special. From what he has seen of Strasburg, at least on the highlight reels, he has a feeling there eventually will be a new member of the mound club reserved only for the best of the best.

"He sure looks like the real deal," Gross said. "He's got four pitches he can spot, and he throws 95-plus. That's pretty impressive. I don't care if you're a rookie or not."

This might be the only time the Phillies get to see Strasburg this season. He has logged 119 innings to date, including the minors, and the Nats - out of pennant contention - have placed him on a strict 160-inning limit, a precaution against overuse.

"You have to be careful with a property as valuable as that," Gross said. "That's a big-ticket kind of player, for sure." *

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