WASHINGTON (AP) — The baseball world rubbed its eyes Wednesday morning, shook its head and thought: “Did that really happen?”
Restaurants in the nation’s capital started renaming menu items after a certain young pitcher, including one place that is now serving a “Strasburger” with 14 pickles — one for each strikeout.
In Cleveland, where the sequel plays on Sunday, the box office had a run on tickets — 3,000 sold in less than 24 hours.
And, yes — no foolin’ — the topic was even raised on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Baseball has an overnight sensation. His name is Stephen Strasburg.
“We can only hope and pray that his arm holds up,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said during an exchange with Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, “and that he has the kind of career that everyone is anticipating. There was literally electricity in the air. It was an exciting event, and it was great to be there.”
“Really, for Washington — which has been so starved for a good athletic team of some kind — it was nice,” Reid responded.
Bipartisanship! Strasburg’s not only good for the Washington Nationals, he’s apparently a boon to the whole country.
A day earlier, last year’s overall No. 1 draft pick, pitching before a stading-room-only crowd and seemingly oblivious to the incredible hype, had one of the best pitching debuts in major league history. He struck out 14, walked none, hit 100 mph on the stadium radar gun and thoroughly embarrassed the Pittsburgh Pirates over seven innings Tuesday night in a 5-2 victory.
“I think everybody in baseball watched him yesterday,” Milwaukee Brewers slugger Corey Hart said before his team’s game against the Chicago Cubs. “I think it’s impressive just because you obviously watch him pitch and he’s really good, but to be able to overcome everything that was on his shoulders. … That’s a lot of pressure, and he was able to overcome it.”
But if you ask Strasburg himself, he hardly noticed the fuss. Sure, the 21-year-old from San Diego relished the fact that he was achieving his dream of pitching in the majors and was moved when he saw his father shed a tear or two for the first time, but he otherwise shrugged off the glare the same way he dismissed the Pittsburgh hitters.
“I try and stick away from all the media stuff, so I really don’t know what you’re referring to,” he said Wednesday when asked about the national attention he was getting.
How did he celebrate last night?
“Just went home,” he told reporters. “You guys kept me here till midnight. I needed some sleep.”
Is he watching TV?
“Quite a bit. I used to watch ‘SportsCenter’ all the time. Now there’s just too much to watch, so I’m trying to find new channels to watch. When you come here every day, it can be pretty wearing at times. It’s nice to get away now and then and kind of relax and not think about baseball.”
Strasburg continues to exude both humility and extreme confidence. He actually said with a straight face: “Hopefully, I can keep my spot up here for a long time to come.” And he pointed out Tuesday night that “not all games are going to be like this.”
But here’s the concern for hitters yet to face him, starting Sunday when the Nationals play at Cleveland: He is not going to be intimidated.
“The biggest challenge is understanding that a lot of these hitters are very advanced, they’re professionals, but I’ve really learned to not give them too much credit,” he said. “I’ve started to realize that my stuff can play up here.”
Even scarier is the fact that Strasburg didn’t go over any scouting reports before his first start. The Nationals wanted him to just fire away and let veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez worry about the game plan.
Imagine how he’ll do now he that he’s about to start studying.
“That’s going to be new experience,” he said, “to make up a plan to attack the Indians hitters.”
Manager Jim Riggleman, meanwhile, outlined the rotation plan for Strasburg for the rest of the season. The rookie will pitch every fifth day — not every fifth game — until roughly the All-Star break. After that, Strasburg will get longer breaks between starts.
Yet, no matter what, the Nationals are determined not to let him pitch more than 160 innings this year, and that includes the 55 1-3 he’s already thrown in the minors. This asset will be carefully monitored.
“There will be a point where we just shut him down for a while or really minimize his innings,” Riggleman said. “What we want to do is have him pitching in late September, but that means that there’s going to be some times in there we give him a week where he doesn’t pitch.”
Meanwhile, Stras-mania rolls on. Topps decided to release his rookie baseball card online after his first pitch Tuesday night. By Wednesday, they were already selling for big bucks on eBay.
But at least the kid himself can now relax a bit.
Well, maybe not.
“The moment you start to relax, this game’s going to humble you,” he said. “I’m still hungry. I still want to get better.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Colin Fly in Milwaukee, and Associated Press writer Brett Zongker and AP freelance writer Pete Kerzel in Washington contributed to this report.