Sunday, June 13, 2010

Riding the Strasburg wave

Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
All eyes were on Stephen Strasburg once again.
CLEVELAND -- Drew Storen has been with Stephen Strasburg every step of the way. From the Arizona Fall League to spring training to Harrisburg to Syracuse to the big leagues, Storen has been Strasburg's teammate, sidekick and friend.

And today, the rookie reliever played a new role in Strasburg's life: The guy who bailed him out of a tight jam.

Make no mistake about it, Strasburg's performance against the Indians would have looked a lot less impressive had Storen not deftly pitched his way out of the sixth inning, stranding the bases loaded, preserving the Nationals' lead and saving the game for his good friend.

"I wouldn't say I saved it," Storen insisted. "But it was good to come into that tight spot. I enjoy that tight spot, and I was just glad to get out of it."

These two first-round draft picks -- selected just nine spots from each other last summer -- will always be linked, and that's a good thing. Strasburg gets all the attention and hype, but he's got very little personality and shies away from the spotlight. Storen, meanwhile, hasn't gotten nearly as much press but is perfectly comfortable in front of cameras and reporters.

Together, they're bringing plenty of positive news to a Nationals organization that used to serve as baseball's punching bag but now is among the sport's best stories.

In the last five days, baseball fans around the country have gotten to know not only Strasburg, but Storen, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Ian Desmond. And they've all taken advantage of the attention and put together impressive performances at the right times.

"Obviously the more national notoriety [Strasburg] gets, the team will get," said Dunn, who has homered in both of the rookie's starts. "That's great for the organization. But what's really good is: Instead of playing in front of 15,000, you're playing in front of 35,000-40,000. That's a lot more fun."

Fans in Cleveland certainly turned out in big numbers today. The crowd of 32,876 was at least 10,000 more than would have attended this game had Strasburg not been pitching, and included 3,823 fans who walked up to the ballpark this morning and bought tickets on-site.

The crowd also included new Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, who sat not in a luxury box or in the front row behind the Indians' dugout but in the section reserved for Nationals family members. McCoy, you see, is friends from Dunn (a former Texas quarterback himself) and came as a guest of the Nats, not the Indians.

So, he came out just to see Strasburg, right?

"He didn't even know who he was," Dunn said.

Everyone laughed.

"Why are you laughing?" he asked with a straight face.

Wait, you're serious?

"No. Of course he knows who he is."

There isn't a sports fan in the country who hasn't heard of Strasburg at this point. He debut last week was front-page news everywhere. His every move shows up on SportsCenter. His jersey was everywhere in the stands today. And the bandwagon will only continue to roll on, stopping every five days to pick up more followers.

Strasburg, of course, still remains relatively oblivious to it all. Maybe he does understand what's going on, but he's making a point not to pay any attention to it.

"I've never been really one to just read all the stuff and watch everything," he said. "I'm still watching TV. I'm just not watching those channels."

If he does start watching, Strasburg will see that his newfound stardom has brought newfound attention to his teammates and his franchise. The Nationals are awash in good press right now, and as long as they keep performing at respectable levels, they will continue to reap the benefits of the sport's hottest newcomer.

"It's funny," Storen said. "Usually in the minor leagues, when somebody would come in the game [to replace Strasburg], the fans would leave. This is one of the few times they stayed."

Yes, the fans are turning out for Strasburg. Television networks are clamoring to pick up every one of his starts.

But along the way, they're getting a nice glimpse at what the Nationals have become: One of baseball's most-interesting, young teams, one with a real future (whether it's this year, next year or two years down the road).

Strasburg can't do it alone. Today, he needed Storen's bailout and an offensive surge from his teammates.

But he's driving this ship right now. Everyone else is along for the ride. And it promises to be one really enjoyable trip.


K.D. said...

Great article Mark, fun game to watch. Storen had his bit of the well deserved limelight. I think Strasburg has a personality by the way, just a low key, self-deprecating one.

Doc said...

Neat ardticle MarkMeister!

SS is correct to avoid the hoopla as much as he can. There is very little of it that will contribute to him being a better pitcher. You can see him focused, even when he is on the bench.

He's got the physical part down, and he continues to work on the mental. Its the latter that will make him a really great pitcher.

Cwj said...

Very good article Mark.

I agree with K.D. and Doc on the personality issue. Everyone has a personality :)
I would add that maybe he's just acting like any rookie would in his place. Humbleness is a good trait I think

Andrew said...

I think even Mike Morse and Bernadina who have played well in their spots have received some nods of approval.

Congrats to the guys who have stepped up.

Did you see the way people were snatching up Strasburg shirts at the stadium. Supposedly they sold out of all Medium and Large shirts!!!

Andrew said...

Loved the Colt McCoy story BTW

Arlington Big Fish said...

One thing about Strasburg I don't like is a habit he seems to have picked up very quickly: I saw a shot a couple of days ago of him sitting in the dugout with a huge wad of tobacco under his lip. I've been a baseball fan for more years than I care to admit, & I have NEVER understood baseball's attraction to this filthy & dangerous affectation.

Grandstander said...

Mark, I was wondering, typically rookies face some hazing during their debut in the minors. Obviously, the Nats are a much more laid back club than the Yanks or Red Sox or a team like that, but has he faced any hazing or practical jokes? Obviously there was the shaving cream to the face, but vets have gotten that treatment as well.

I'd be curious as to the locker room dynamic of having a rookie who's levels more popular than the teams veteran starters.

Andrew said...

Grandstander - The Nats have done some good group Rookie hazing such as making players wear a pink backpack for a day or dress in "drag" which would be a little more embarassing.

I remember Marco Estrada in 2007 had to wear the pink backpack in Philly and head to the bullpen wearing it. The crowd went crazy.

Andrew said...

Scratch that. I think Marco Estrada had to walk the walk in 2008.

Anonymous said...

The pink backpack (I believe it's a Hello Kitty model) is the standard rookie hazing tool for the pitching staff. I remember watching Ross Detwiler wear it on his nightly walks out to the bullpen before the game during his cup of coffee in 2007. Storen mentioned having to carry it during an interview a few weeks back. Seeing as how Strasburg is a rookie, you would think he would also be subject to these rookie hijinks. Maybe now that the hoopla of his first start is over they'll make him wear it when he goes out to the bullpen to warm up for his start this Friday.

Wombat-socho said...

Linked at Beltway Baseball.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Regarding the rookie hazing ... they do typically make rookie pitchers wear a kiddie backpack when walking out to the bullpen, though that may only apply to relievers. Can't say I've noticed anything for Strasburg (or Atilano for that matter).

The one prank all rookies participate in comes in late September when they have to dress up in ridiculous costumes (usually women's wear) after a getaway game and wear the outfit throughout the trip until they arrive at the team hotel in another city.

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