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The Nats, in other words, aren't taking any chances—and no one can blame them. Not a lot has gone right for Washington baseball in, well, 75 years. So, no, the Nationals are not going to rush Strasburg to the big leagues. They will not talk about their Strasburg plan, but it's pretty clear that one of the reasons they are being so cautious is that they want to delay the start of Strasburg's arbitration clock: If he gets enough service time this year, he could be eligible for arbitration after the 2012 season rather than the 2013 season. That could cost the Nationals several million extra dollars. They will wait.
The interesting thing is that while the careful handling of Strasburg is meant to ease the pressure on him, it has only increased the hype around him. His minor league starts have become major events: He has pitched in front of sellout crowds in Harrisburg and Rochester and in front of the two biggest crowds ever to watch baseball in Syracuse. STRASBURG T-shirts were sold in Rochester. There was an eBay frenzy over a Stephen Strasburg Bowman Chrome "Superfractor" baseball card; the winning bid was $16,403. Former major league ace Curt Schilling said he had never seen anyone quite like him. Strasburg, Schilling said, could be the best pitcher in the bigs the day he arrives.
When rumors swirled that Strasburg would make his debut on June 4, tickets for that game were gobbled up by hungry Washington fans. When word then leaked out that, no, he would probably pitch later in that homestand, there was some anger about the money spent on June 4 tickets— followed by another flurry of ticket buying.
Strasburg is at the heart of D.C.'s sports hopes. He seems equipped to handle it. He's quiet, distant. He calls himself a homebody (his wife, Rachel, travels everywhere with him), and he seems strikingly unimpressed with himself. "I haven't proven anything yet," he says when asked how it felt to get a standing ovation from his opponents' fans in Rochester.
"I know I still have a lot to learn," he said after making his third Triple A start without allowing a run.
"All that stuff will take care of itself," he says when asked if he's impatient to get to the big leagues.
That stuff will take care of itself, yes, and soon. Until then, Stephen Strasburg travels around on minor league buses and strikes out minor league hitters and inspires memories and optimism and tall tales wherever he goes.
"You know why there's so much talk about this kid?" Altobelli says. "It's because they don't make them like him anymore. He comes right at you. That's how people used to pitch. He's like the old days."
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For more from Joe Posnanski on Stephen Strasburg's minor league tour, go to SI.com/mlb