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MASN, Washington's regional TV network, reported that ratings for the game, played on the same night as Game 3 of the NBA Finals, were three times higher than those for the Nats' previous top-rated broadcast. And at least four D.C. restaurants began selling Strasburgers. Now available at the Burger Joint in DuPont Circle: a hot dog atop a burger smothered in cheddar cheese, in honor of Strasburg's pro debut with the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League in 2009.
Virtually overnight, Strasburg became a national celebrity. The Hall of Fame asked for his cap and a game ball from the first outing. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell gushed on the Senate floor, "I was there and had a chance to see Strasburg. There was literally electricity in the air." Bob Costas, who called the game for the MLB Network, proclaimed it one of the 10 most memorable sporting events he'd covered.
Later in the week Strasburg delivered the Top Ten List on The Late Show with David Letterman. (Little Known Fact No. 9 About Stephen Strasburg: "Every morning, I spread Icy Hot on my toast.") "Baseball's new original phenom," Letterman announced, almost giddily. "We haven't had one of these guys in a long, long time."
On Sunday, another one of those original phenoms sat in the press box at Progressive Field. In 1936 Bob Feller, now 91, struck out 15 hitters in his first major league start, with the Indians, at age 17. He, of course, went on to a Hall of Fame career. Impressed though he was by what he saw last week, Feller wasn't quite ready to enshrine Strasburg in Cooperstown. "He'll probably be dominant," Feller said, "but let's wait and see how he does after hitters have seen him a few times."
Such a levelheaded response to the Strasburg Show is rare. The challenge for the Nationals now is to manage expectations. It's easy to forget that Strasburg is a six-inning pitcher, a 21-year-old who's just a year removed from college and is tied to strict inning and pitch counts. And, at the risk of being overly levelheaded, it's worth noting that the Pirates and the Indians, the teams he dominated in his first two starts, have two of baseball's weakest lineups.
How long can the dominance and the lovefest last? That may depend on the Nationals. The team has said that Strasburg has a 160-inning limit this season. He logged 551/3 innings in the minors and 121/3 last week, which means he has less than 100 to spread over the next four months. Washington says he'll pitch every five days until the All-Star break; after that the team will keep him in the rotation through September but space out his starts so as not to cross that innings threshold. The difficult decision will come if the Nats, who were two games under .500 and 5½ games out of a playoff spot through Sunday, are within sniffing distance of the pennant race late in the season. Will they really shut down their best pitcher with a spot in the postseason on the line?
Dreams of playoff berths, dazzling career numbers, Hall of Fame acceptance speeches: Strasburg makes it easy for those who watch him to get ahead of themselves. But for now, he pitches—and the world watches. Up next: starts against the White Sox at home this Friday, then the Orioles and the Braves on the road. Those games will be nationally televised. All eyes will be on Strasburg this summer. Every fifth day in the baseball world, it will be Strasmas.
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