WASHINGTON - Hundreds of fans milled through the wide concourses at Nationals Field wearing red T-shirts with Stephen Strasburg's name and No. 37 embossed on the back. Neal Schlosburg couldn't wait. He bought his last week.
"This is the biggest thing around here since Walter Johnson. We haven't had a pitcher of this caliber in my lifetime," the 61-year-old District of Columbia native declared as he sampled some pregame barbecue.
Oh, come on . . .
That seemed like a bit of hyperbole since The Big Train won 417 games and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936 while Strasburg hadn't thrown a pitch in the majors until shortly after 7 o'clock last night.
He wasn't alone in getting caught up in the hype, though. Even Nationals president Stan Kasten, a longtime, well-respected professional sports executive, was jazzed. "All I can compare it to is a sports event. And this is as big as it gets," he said.
Really now . . .
And yet, believe it or not, the 21-year-old righthander somehow managed to exceed expectations last night despite some of the most intense scrutiny imaginable.
In his very first big-league game, 1 day short of a year after the Nationals made him the first overall pick out of San Diego State, Strasburg set a franchise record with 14 strikeouts.
He finished strong, whiffing the last seven Pirates hitters he faced, still throwing 99.
He drew a gasp from the seats when the scoreboard radar clocked his fourth pitch to Delwyn Young in the second inning at 100.
He showed true grit in the fourth by getting a doubleplay grounder after allowing back-to-back singles to start the inning. Then, he demonstrated his resiliency after Young lofted a two-run homer to right-center, retiring the next 10 batters.
His fastball was as good as advertised, with late movement. His changeup came in around 91, a decent fastball for most pitchers. His breaking stuff, at 82-83, often made the hitters look silly.
And he got the win, allowing just four hits in his seven innings. He didn't walk a batter while throwing 94 pitches, 65 for strikes, in Washington's 5-2 victory.
"I really can't put it into words any better than what you saw," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. "With everything that's been on him, for him to respond that way, it's a great night for baseball in Washington."
Pirates No. 3 hitter Lastings Milledge is a believer. "He's much different from any pitcher I've ever faced," the leftfielder said. "I tip my cap to the kid. He had great, great location. He never gave me anything to drive."
As he was doing his television standup outside the dugout, teammate John Lannan attacked him with a shaving cream pie and somebody slapped the silver, plastic Elvis wig on his head that centerfielder Nyjer Morgan insists that the star of the game wear after a win.
In the interview room afterward, with both his parents and his college coach, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, looking on, Strasburg admitted to being a little bit nervous. He said pitching coach Steve McCatty helped take the edge off by joking that all the people in the stands had come to see him.
One person who wasn't surprised at his success, he said, was him.
"I definitely think anything's possible," he said. "I didn't have any expectations going into the game. It's icing on the cake to go out and pitch well and get the win.
"The only thing I remember is the first pitch. It was a ball inside. Everything else is kind of a blur. It's kind of like getting married. You go into it wanting to remember everything. And, when it's done, you don't remember a thing."
His state of blissful ignorance was helped by the fact that the Nationals didn't have him go over a scouting report before the game. The team just told him to trust his stuff and the game-calling of catcher Pudge Rodriguez.
"I've caught a lot of guys, but this kid is unbelievable," Rodriguez said. "He completely dominated. He did tremendous. He did great. Even guys from the other team, when they came to the plate they said, 'This guy is unbelievable.' "
It's difficult to overstate the impact that Strasburg can have on a Nationals franchise that has largely been a distant afterthought since it relocated to Washington from Montreal in 2005.
Before last night, the Nats were averaging an announced attendance of 21,560. Last night: 40,315. It's the first sellout since Opening Day.
Superagent Scott Boras, who negotiated Strasburg's $15.1 million contract, said he knew from the first time he saw the big righthander that he was viewing something special.
"Command of extraordinary velocity and intellect to seek other pitches. Those are the two things that impressed me," he said. "A lot of times when you have pitchers who throw hard, they're very comfortable with one pitch. With Stephen, he always had the foresight and the intellect to say, 'I'm going to perfect secondary pitches.' "
Cackled Kasten: "It's the only time you'll hear this from me. 'Scott was not exaggerating.' "
Now Strasburg, as much as possible, becomes just a member of the rotation. His next start will be in Cleveland. He won't always be so overpowering. But his career couldn't have gotten off to a much more auspicious start. You've got to suspect even Walter Johnson would have been impressed.