Strasmas: Six Years Later

Major League Baseball officially returned to Washington, DC in 2005, but it didn’t really come back until almost five years later: June 8th, 2010. For that was the day the Nation’s Capital was blessed with the arrival of a quiet, strong-armed man named “Steve.”

DC is a weird sports town: it has franchises in each of the big four leagues and solid college programs, but those are mostly fodder for a football team that hasn’t appeared in a conference title game since 1992 and is generally mocked as the second-worst franchise in the NFL (Hello, Cleveland!). Yet despite Dan Snyder’s ineptitude, the Nationals, Capitals and Wizards struggle for coverage, even in the dead of summer.

The Nationals didn’t help themselves, either. From 2005 to 2009, they opted to re-build (or “tank,” if that makes you feel better), which meant they played progressively worse every year, going from 81 wins in 2005 to a miserable 59 in 2008 and 2009.

But those terrible seasons also secured the Nats back-to-back top picks in the 2009 and 2010 amateur drafts. In 2009, with the first of those top picks, the Nationals chose Stephen Strasburg, a lanky west coast kid who literally came out of nowhere to become the best amateur player in the country.

Strasburg wasn’t drafted coming out of high school and had conditioning issues when he arrived at San Diego State. However, by the time he reached his junior season, he had sculpted his body and under the tutelage of Hall of Famer/Coach Tony Gwynn, became one of the greatest pitching prospects of all-time.

The numbers in his final season at San Diego State read like a video game: a WHIP of .77 across 109 innings and 16 strikeouts per nine frames (against guys using aluminum bats). Once a week I scanned the daily Baseball America (BA) prospect email, anxious to see what Steve did the night before. In his final home start, he threw a no-hitter and struck out 17. In his final collegiate appearance he lost to Virginia in the College World Series, but still managed to strike out 15 in seven innings. Steve was legit.

So when the Nationals drafted Steve #1 overall in June 2009, the town was giddy. DC was ready for a winner. Although he didn’t sign his record-breaking deal until there was only 77 seconds left in the negotiating window (I refreshed the BA draft tracker about 100 times that day), he was finally ours.

The hype only grew from there: he cruised through the minor leagues, racking up strikeouts and attendance records wherever he pitched. Finally, on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010, the Nation’s Capital got a taste. Tickets were impossible to get and the city buzzed about sports for the first time in what felt like forever. I had a date that night, so I watched the first few innings from home, then made sure I met my date at a bar that had a television (shocker: it didn’t work out). Even the cab driver was listening to the game on the radio. It was surreal.

It was the most anticipated rookie debut of all-time. Steve did not disappoint: seven innings, 14 strikeouts, zero walks. Thirty-four of his 94 pitches that night clocked 99 mph (two hit 100). Go ahead and watch the video — my description of the game could never do it justice. The Nationals won 5-2 and baseball was officially back in DC.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale wouldn’t last all summer, and eventually shoulder soreness begat Tommy John surgery, innings limits and questions about whether or not Steve was tough enough. It didn’t help that the guy the Nationals drafted the day before Steve’s debut, Bryce Harper, began tearing up the minor leagues while creating (and living up to) his own hype train. Steve would become a crucial part of the Nationals’ success, but never the face of the franchise we all hoped for.

At the start of this season, it seemed a foregone conclusion Steve would leave the Nats via free agency next winter, making the memories from six years ago bittersweet. I worried DC had taken him for granted, forgetting about how he electrified this city and represented a new era of professional baseball in a town that had lost it twice before. Fans of the team that averaged 66 wins from 2006 to 2010 and 91 from 2012 to 2015 became greedy.

Instead, the Nats and Steve shocked us all by signing a seven-year extension last month. Heartbreak avoided. Steve is ours (again). It’s time we start appreciating him (again).

I don’t think Steve will ever become the Dwight Gooden clone we all expected, but I also don’t think he gets enough credit for what he has accomplished (career ERA+ of 127, 10.5 K/9, 1.09 WHIP). Despite the injuries, he’s still one of the hardest throwing starters in the game and at just 27 years-old, is entering the prime of his career. Since last August, he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Nats fans: read that line again.

Here’s hoping there’s a lot of mileage left on that arm: there are still many more memories to make.

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