By Andrew C. Sharp
In its first issue of 2024, the venerable Baseball Digest chose Stephen Strasburg’s 2010 debut, at Nationals Park in Washington against Pittsburgh, as the greatest first-game performance in MLB history.
Clearly, because of the hype surrounding Strasburg’s selection as the first player chosen in the 2009 draft, and his short but dominant two stops in the minors, his debut with the Nationals was among the most anticipated.
On a Tuesday evening on June 8, 2010, the 21-year-old phenom from San Diego State didn’t disappoint. He set an American record for strikeouts in a debut by fanning 14 of the 24 Pirates who batted during his seven innings — and he didn’t walk anybody. As advertised, his fastball reached 100 mph. He gave up two runs on four hits but fanned the last seven batters he faced. The crowd of 40,315, supplemented by more than 200 members of the media, knew immediately that Strasburg was special.
Watching on MLB.TV from my home in New Jersey, what I was seeing gave me goose bumps. I regretted all the more the rainout that made me miss seeing him pitch for AA Harrisburg in April.
“It's kind of like when you get married,” Strasburg told reporters after the game. “You go into it wanting to really remember everything, and once it is done, you can't remember a single thing.”
Strasburg struck out the side in the second and had fanned six before yielding a two-out, two-run, homer to Delwyn Young in the fourth. But the fire-balling righty wasn’t rattled. He proceeded to fan the last seven batters he faced, tying the Nationals’ record for consecutive strikeouts.
The 14 strikeouts set a Nationals’ record at the time. (Strasburg’s eventual teammate Max Scherzer later struck out 15 and then as many as 20, tying the MLB record for a nine-inning game.)
Strasburg got support in the form of long balls from Washington’s 3-4-5 hitters: Ryan Zimmerman’s solo shot in the first gave the Nationals the lead, Adam Dunn’s two-run blast in the sixth, followed by Josh Willingham’s solo homer put Washington up 4-2. Zimmerman and Dunn each had three hits. The final score was 5-2. SABR’s Steven C. Weiner’s Games Project essay on Strasburg’s debut has a complete account.
“I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I was,” Strasburg said of his debut. Catching Strasburg that night was Ivan Rodriguez, near the end of his Hall-of-Fame career.
“This kid is unbelievable,” the Nationals catcher said after the game.” The rookie’s 94 pitches included a fastball that averaged 99 mph, a knee-bucking curve and a nasty change-up. His game score was 75. Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth and Matt Capps earned his 16th save in the ninth.
Baseball Digest had 20 players on its list of greatest debuts. Cecil Travis of the 1933 Senators, the only player in the 20th Century to get five hits in his debut, was ranked no. 10. He also was the only player on the list who debuted in the 1930s, the longest ago of anyone of the top 20.
The Giants’ Willie McCovey (July 30, 1959) and Juan Marichal (July 19, 1960) were the only Hall-of-Famers who made the cut. They ranked ninth and 10th respectively on the list compiled by long-time baseball writer Dom Amore.
Injuries ended Strasburg’s career prematurely, but not before he made three All-Star teams, won six post-season games and was voted the most valuable player in the 2019 World Series, helping a Washington team win its first championship since 1924.
Andrew C. Sharp is a retired newspaper journalist and a SABR member who has written several dozen Bio and Games Project essays. He blogs about D.C. baseball at Washingtonbaseballhistory.com