Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs on opening day at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE
Strasburg had some help from the Wrigley Field wind on Thursday, but he also flashed signs of the dominance that he had when his major league career began.
Less than a year after he was chosen, he was in the major leagues, dominating the Pittsburgh Pirates with a 14-strikeout gem. The hype machine continued through Strasburg's 12 starts in 2010, until he was shut down late that year; Tommy John surgery followed.
Strasburg was back on a major-league mound just over a year after the surgery, and made five solid starts last September. Nationals management and fans, thus, hold high hopes that he will still become the ace they thought they drafted in 2009.
This spring, Strasburg earned Washington's Opening Day start against the Cubs -- a team not expected to score many runs this season -- at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon.
Strasburg had an additional benefit, beyond a weak Cubs offense -- a 20-mile-per-hour wind blowing straight in at Wrigley Field from the northeast. That gale knocked down at least three drives by Cubs that, on ordinary days with no such wind, would likely have been home runs (one hit by David DeJesus, two by Alfonso Soriano). Strasburg also got out of the way of an infield pop-up hit almost right to him; it dropped untouched for a hit by Starlin Castro in the first inning (Castro was stranded when Soriano's first fly ball was caught by Roger Bernadina in center field).
But other than that, Strasburg was masterful. He had the Cubs swinging at virtually everything in the early innings; he threw just seven pitches in the first inning, seven more in the second, and 12 in the third. The Cubs managed to scrape a run off him in the fourth inning on a single, a fielder's choice, a walk and another single. It could have been more, except for a questionable steal attempt of third base by Soriano. After that, Strasburg retired seven consecutive Cubs before Jeff Baker led off the seventh with a single; four pitches later, Strasburg induced Marlon Byrd to hit into a double play.
After those seven innings and 82 pitches -- 58 for strikes -- Strasburg was lifted for a pinch-hitter. He surely could have gone longer; the Nats were trailing 1-0 at the time and Davey Johnson obviously wanted some offense (which he didn't get, as pinch-hitter Chad Tracy struck out).
So does that mean Stephen Strasburg is "back"? Hard to say after one start, against a weak-hitting team with the wind howling in, knocking fly balls down. But he threw strikes and kept his pitch count down; it's a good beginning for what's supposed to be his first full major-league season. His next start should be against another offensively-challenged team, the Mets, at Citi Field next Wednesday, unless for some reason the Nats decide to hold him back for their home opener next Thursday against the Reds.
Either way, he does appear to be on his way to being -- at 23 -- the No. 1 starter the Nats could use this year, as they shoot for contention in the NL East.
(And by the way, the Nationals won 2-1 on Thursday, scoring in the eighth and the ninth.)