ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) — Wherever Stephen Strasburg’s formidable right arm eventually takes him, the record books will always show his first professional win came April 11, 2010, in his minor league debut, at a stadium with a rollercoaster looming beyond right field, in this town of 50,000 nestled in the Allegheny Mountains.
Before consistently pitching in the 97-98 mph range over his five innings Sunday, before allowing four runs — one earned — and four hits, before striking out eight batters, Strasburg loped into the cramped visiting clubhouse at Blair County Ballpark.
Like other players for the Harrisburg Senators, the Washington Nationals’ entry in the Double-A Eastern League, Strasburg changed out of his jeans and polo shirt and began putting on his uniform. Like others, he grabbed a jelly doughnut from the pregame spread, which also featured jars of peanut butter and jelly and a plastic container of cheese balls (“Made with real cheese,” the label promised).
Like others, he relaxed before his start against the Altoona Curve, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, by sitting on the fraternity-style green plaid couch and looking up at the lone, tiny TV. No flat screens here.
And like Harrisburg’s other starting pitchers, Strasburg took the mound for his first start of the season knowing he was on a pitch count, with no chance of more than 85 or 90 tosses.
“All of our starters are the same,” Harrisburg manager Randy Knorr explained before the game.
Well, not quite the same. Strasburg, of course, is the only one whose picture graced the special media credentials issued by the Curve’s PR staff for Sunday’s game.
“The other team is promoting him,” noted reliever Drew Storen, another top Nationals prospect who got the save Sunday.
Strasburg also is the only one who was the No. 1 overall pick in June’s amateur draft, the only one who signed a record $15.1 million, four-year contract in August, the only one expected to be a member of the Nationals’ rotation sometime this summer — and, the club hopes, far beyond.
With all eyes on him — and a more-than-capacity-crowd of 7,887 in attendance — Strasburg stretched and jogged in the outfield, more than a dozen cameras capturing his every move. When he made it to the mound, he pitched those five innings, throwing 82 pitches Sunday and helping Harrisburg beat Altoona 6-4.
For good measure, Strasburg even delivered an RBI double in Harrisburg’s three-run fifth inning for his first professional hit.
He allowed an earned run in the first inning on a double and single, then three unearned runs in the fourth, when Harrisburg made two errors.
Strasburg had a rough opening inning. After getting Altoona’s first two batters out, he allowed Alex Presley’s double off the base of the wall in right-center, followed by Miles Durham’s RBI single to center.
After the first of two walks to Kris Watts, Strasburg ended the inning by striking out Josh Harrison on a 97 mph fastball. He threw 24 pitches in the inning, 14 for strikes.
Not exactly living up to all the hype and hoopla, attention that prompted Harrisburg teammate Adam Fox to joke in the clubhouse beforehand, “It’s a national holiday today. It’s Stephen Strasburg Day.”
But Strasburg then began to dominate, retiring seven consecutive batters, five by strikeout. In the second inning, for example, he threw eight pitches — and all eight were strikes. He showed off his big fastball, but also his slider-curve hybrid, which made one right-handed batter lean way back to get out of the way of a pitch that wound up bending back over the plate for a called strike.
A walk, two errors and two singles contributed to Altoona’s big fourth inning, before Strasburg finished strong, with a strikeout and two groundouts to third in the fifth inning, his last of the day.