Cook: Strasburg blazing a trail to greatness

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There was a lot of greatness on the PNC Park mound Thursday night. First, future Hall of Fame wide receiver Hines Ward walked out there, a No. 86 Pirates jersey on his back and his always-present wide smile on his face. Then, it was time for future Hall of Fame pitcher Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals. Ward thrilled the crowd by throwing a perfect strike with the ceremonial first pitch. Strasburg mesmerized it by striking out 13 Pirates in six innings in a 4-2 win.

It isn't often Hines gets upstaged on a Pittsburgh stage.

Strasburg did it.

It really isn't outrageous to suggest Strasburg, 23, is headed to the Hall of Fame even though this was just the 24th start of his career. Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson were young once. This is what they looked like, toying with hitters, having their way with them, just dominating games.

The only thing that can stop Strasburg is injuries. He had Tommy John elbow surgery in September 2010. What a shame it will be if that prized right arm doesn't hold up for the next 15 seasons or so.

Although the Pirates might not believe this, Strasburg isn't all the way back to where he was before his injury. He made five starts last September. This was No. 7 this season. Those in the Pirates dugout noticed his velocity started to slip after he hit 75 pitches. His location wasn't quite perfect.

Just think what Strasburg will do after he finds his form.

Everybody in the Pirates lineup but right fielder Jose Tabata struck out at least once against Strasburg. He struck out the side in the second, third and fifth innings. At one point, he struck out seven consecutive hitters.

Strasburg has been doing that sort of thing -- when he has been healthy -- since he made his big-league debut against the Pirates on June 8, 2010. He struck out 14 in seven innings that night in a 5-2 win. You don't have to be a math major to know that's 27 strikeouts in 13 innings in two starts against the Pirates.

I'm not sure Seaver and Gibson ever did that to 'em.

But Strasburg has been that good against just about everybody. He has struck out 31.4 percent of the batters he has faced. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio is a ridiculous 167 to 29. He has allowed two or fewer earned runs in 20 of his 24 starts, three or fewer in 23 of 24. It's no wonder the Nationals are 14-1 when they score at least two runs while Strasburg is in the game.

The Nationals got just enough for Strasburg Thursday night. They trailed, 2-0, before Roger Bernadina and Adam LaRoche hit home runs in the sixth inning against Pirates starter Kevin Correia to take a 3-2 lead. Strasburg made it stand up despite some uncharacteristic wildness in the bottom of half of the sixth inning when he walked Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alavarez and Neil Walker consecutively with two outs.

That brought Garrett Jones to the plate. He already had struck out twice against Strasburg, in the second inning on a rising 97 mph fastball and in the fifth on a breaking ball in the dirt. That's what makes Strasburg so unhittable. He can throw from 80 to 98 mph and has a devastating curveball and 88 mph changeup that terrorizes hitters.

Jones worked the count to 2-2. The game felt like it was on the line with the next pitch. Strasburg blew a 95 mph fastball by Jones on his 103rd and final pitch of the night. It was Jones' third strikeout of the night and his fifth in six at-bats against Strasburg going back to that game in 2010.

"I felt like I was late all night," Jones said. "I wasn't picking the ball up out of his hand. ... Obviously, he's a great pitcher. He's one of the best out there."

Strasburg was done after the third Jones strikeout. The Nationals are monitoring his pitch count closely. This was just the third time in his seven starts this season that he went more than 100 pitches.

Later in the season, considering Strasburg continues to make every start, the Nationals will have a tougher decision to make with him. He pitched just 441/3 innings last season, counting six rehab starts in the minors and his five with the big club in September. Even if they're fighting for a division title or wild-card slot, it's likely they will shut him down after he approaches 150 or 160 innings, just as they did in September last season with another of their prized young pitchers, Jordan Zimmermann, who also was coming off Tommy John surgery. They have too much invested in Strasburg to let him jump to 200-plus innings. He has too much of a future.

A Hall-of-Fame future.

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published May 11, 2012 12:00 AM


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