CLEVELAND -- Here in LeBron James' town, it was Stephen Strasburg's afternoon. And the kid met his toughest opponent yet in two big-league starts.
The, uh, Progressive Field, um, mound.
|Stephen Strasburg's only trouble in Cleveland comes from the mound. (Getty Images)|
First time came as Strasburg was finishing his warmup pitches to start the fifth.
What's the deal, anyway? The Indians trade Cy Young heavyweights CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in consecutive seasons and figure they'll just let the mound go to seed? The Secret Service didn't sweep the area closely enough before Strasburg was sent out into public a second time?
"I was slipping a little, but there are going to be games like that," Strasburg said after picking up his second win in two starts as the Nationals rocked the Indians 9-4. "I can't tell you how often I was on a mound like that in college. I wasn't able to make the adjustment I needed to make."
Here's the deal: He finished with five walks in 5 1/3 innings, but -- and this is going to sound weird -- he wasn't nearly as sloppy or in trouble as that makes it sound.
For five innings, aside from the moment when Hafner sunk his teeth into a 100 mph fastball and drove it halfway to Lake Erie (the only run Strasburg allowed), the Indians probably would have had as much success in a pickup hoops game against LeBron's Cavaliers as they did against Strasburg.
"The first couple of innings, I thought he was throwing the ball better today than the other night," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "It's a matter of degrees. But it just seemed like the ball was coming out of his hand even better than it did the other night."
Sunday in Cleveland, he threw nine fastballs at 100 mph. Only two of his heaters hit 100 against Pittsburgh last Tuesday.
When he fanned Trevor Crowe (the radar registered 100 on strike three) and Shin-Soo Choo (99) to start the game, it ran his streak of consecutive K's to nine, considering he whiffed the final seven Pirates he saw Tuesday.
He joined Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, as one of only two pitchers since 1900 to fan 19 or more before issuing his first career walk. Strasburg hit 19, Cueto struck out 22 in 2008 before walking his first big-league hitter.
From the third inning on, though, Strasburg was fighting the mound, becoming more and more uncomfortable with the spot where his right foot landed following his long stride.
Which had to make those in the Nationals dugout extra jumpy, because one little slip in what Strasburg essentially described as a giant hole and ...
"You could roll your ankle and be out," he said.
"You worry about it," Riggleman said. "You watch him land. We were watching to see if his arm slot was in the same place, and it looked like it was.
"That's one of the things you deal with in pitching."
Recap: Nationals 9, Indians 4
Rosecrans: Strasmas II
The boos from Cleveland's crowd of 32,876 -- second-largest this season for the Indians -- were scattered during the second grounds crew appearance. Then, one batter later, when Riggleman delivered Strasburg's first mid-inning hook, the rookie trudged to the dugout serenaded by loud booing.
A sort of odd welcome-to-the-bigs moment in Strasburg's first road start, but at that point, Clevelanders were clinging to what little they had left. This was neither a day where Strasburg swept you off your feet nor a day on which the Indians could kick his door down.
Still, the kid has hit the majors even harder than he throws. In the five days since Strasburg's major-league debut, Cleveland had sold some 10,000 tickets. On a lovely Sunday for baseball -- gray skies threatened early, but the 85-degree humidity broke overnight into a pleasant 72-degree game-time temperature -- the Indians sold 3,823 walkup tickets.
Last in the majors in attendance, with an average of just under 16,000, Strasburg, 21, helped the Indians more than double their regular gate. It's been decades since a starting pitcher has been a draw on the road the way Strasburg is poised to become. We're probably talking back to when Fernandomania swept the game during Fernando Valenzuela's rookie season in 1981. Maybe Detroit's Mark Fidrych in 1976.
Ted Lerner, Washington's 83-year-old owner, flew in for the day. Quarterback Colt McCoy, a longtime friend of Washington slugger Adam Dunn and the Cleveland Browns' third-round pick in this year's NFL Draft, was at the ballyard to see this.
Across the field, you bet Cleveland's Kerry Wood was reminded of his phenom days with the Cubs.
"But it probably wasn't even comparable to this until the 20 strikeout game in my fifth start," Wood said. "That's what changed expectations.
"After the 20-strikeout game, for months I [hated] going to the field because I knew it would be two hours of interview requests and radio call-ins. As a young player, you feel obligated to do that because you don't want to cut anybody off. But it got in the way.
"As a starter, the day after you pitch is the day to get your work in and get treatment, and before I got in the hot tub there would be this interview and that call-in."
Even at that, the manager he has in common with Strasburg from that day in 1998 when Wood struck out 20 Astros and exploded onto the national scene says the hype surrounding Strasburg is even more intense.
"Not even close," Riggleman said.
Up in the press box after Strasburg's day was finished -- 5 1/3 innings, two hits and one run to go with those eight strikeouts and five walks -- Hall of Famer Bob Feller offered measured praise.
"He's got a good career coming up," said Feller, 91. "I understand he's very affable but very quiet. He'll probably be tougher on right-handers than on left-handers. He's two or three miles an hour slower when he's got men on base. I noticed that today. But that's typical. That's not unusual."
Feller pointed out that "he'll probably have half-a-dozen hitters or so who he can't get out. We all have that." Among his own, Feller said, were Tommy Henrich and Nellie Fox.
As for Strasburg, it may take awhile to uncover his. He's stifled the Pirates and Indians for a total of six hits in 12 2/3 innings. He's struck out 22 of the 47 batters he's faced. His ERA -- thanks in no small part to Nationals reliever Drew Storen wiggling out of the one-out, bases-loaded jam he inherited from Strasburg in the sixth Sunday -- is 2.19.
The Indians didn't even put a ball in play against him in the fourth inning Sunday. Two walked and three whiffed.
Had the ground not crumbled beneath his spikes, the hype for his start against the White Sox on Friday in D.C. may have really gotten funky.
"Things like that are part of the game," Strasburg said. "I wish I could have handled it a little better. It got me into a funk. But it's good to experience that now."