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Stephen Strasburg hopes to stand tall tonight in his 2012 Nationals Park debut.
Back in September, Strasburg remained on something of a pseudo-rehab assignment, his recovery from Tommy John surgery complete but his return to peak form still a work in progress. He was limited to 75 pithces, which on that day was enough to get him through only four innings. The Nationals, as a team, had long since been eliminated from contention.
So the scene should be quite different tonight when Strasburg makes his 2012 home debut. He's already flying high from two stellar starts on the road, including a career-high 108-pitch gem Wednesday in New York. And then there's the fact the Nationals currently reside atop the NL East.
But the biggest difference Strasburg may notice when he emerges from the bullpen around 7 p.m. might just be score of empty seats that are likely to pocket the stadium.
Since he first debuted in the big leagues amid hoopla and packed houses, Strasburg has seen the hysteria surrounding his starts considerably wane. "Strasmas," that national holiday that was observed every five days back when he was a flamethrowing rookie (or even a recovering Tommy John patient), is no more. Strasburg, to quote his own words, is "just another donkey" on the Nationals pitching staff.
Which isn't to say he won't pitch in front of big crowds plenty of times this season and beyond. It's just no longer a guarantee the turnstiles will need to be greased every time he's scheduled to start.
A near-perfect confluence of negative factors are likely to keep attendance at Nationals Park down tonight. It's a Monday night game in April, traditionally the least-attended contests all season. The Astros, coming off a 106-loss season, are one of the worst-drawing visiting clubs that will come to D.C. in 2012. Oh, and the Capitals simultaneously will be hosting the Bruins in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup Playoffs series just a couple miles up the road at Verizon Center.
What will all that translate into at the ballpark tonight? It's tough to speculate. The warm weather and word of Strasburg starting may convince a good number of fans to walk up to the stadium and purchase tickets on site. But it may not be enough to ensure Strasburg doesn't pitch in front of the smallest crowd yet to see him at home in the major leagues.
That title currently belongs to the night of Aug. 15, 2010, when only 21,695 showed up to watch what proved to be the final home start of Strasburg's rookie campaign: a 5-3 victory over the Diamondbacks.
Strasburg has rarely seen pedestrian crowds when he's pitched in D.C. Average attendance at his 11 previous starts at Nationals Park has been 29,127. That's about 6,000 more fans than have shown up at the average Nats home game the last two seasons.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander just isn't the novelty he was when he first came up in 2010, or when he first returned from surgery last September. For most, the allure of a trip to Nationals Park isn't watching Strasburg pitch but watching a highly competitive ballclub try to keep winning.
Strasburg, of course, is perfectly fine with all this. He never sought the extra attention that was lavished upon him as a rookie, never understood why so many people made such a big deal out of every one of his outings.
All along, he's simply wanted to pitch just like anyone else on the staff would. Tonight, he may get his wish.
Yes, it's technically the first Strasmas of 2012. But really, it's just a mid-April Monday night game against the Astros.