In which Strasburg debuts and we blog about it…

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strasburg warming.jpgAs HardballTalk readers and baseball fans in general, you’re all well aware of the story by now. 

Selected No. 1 overall by the Nationals in last year’s first-year player draft, Stephen Strasburg has cruised through the minor league ranks with spectacular numbers at every stop.  In five starts this season at Double-A Harrisburg, he posted a 1.64 ERA, a 0.86 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 22.1 innings, earning a quick promotion to Triple-A.  For the Syrcause Chiefs he then rattled off a 4-1 record, a 1.08 ERA and a 38/7 K/BB ratio in six starts.

Now Strasburg is in the big leagues, and will make his MLB debut for the Nats tonight in the nation’s capital.  He has the luxury of facing a light-hitting Pirates team, but a sold out crowd of over 45,000 people in D.C. will present a kind of challenge that he has never before encountered.  Will he succeed?  Will he fail?  Will he allow two or three runs over six innings like any run-of-the-mill major league pitcher?  Stick with HBT tonight and we’ll all find out.  I’m Drew Silva and I will be your guide — your Strasburg Sacagawea.

This is the official Strastivus-Strasmas-Strasnzaa-Strassukah open thread.  Happy Holidays!

7:01pm: Strasburg was given a loud standing ovation on his way from bullpen warm-ups to the dugout.  First pitch is coming up in about 10 minutes, at which point the 40,000-plus fans that have filled Nationals Park will realize that they’re simply at an early-June baseball game.  Right?

7:04pm: The Nats seriously shot off fireworks as Strasburg took the field.  Seriously.  I think there was a guy waving a big flag as well.  What in the world is going on…

7:06pm: Strasburg’s first pitch was clocked at 97 MPH and called a ball.  Let it be written.

7:11pm: Um, wow.  Strasburg just burned Pirates outfielder Lastings Milledge with a 99 MPH fastball, a knee-crippling curve and a fall-off-the-table 83 MPH changeup for a three-pitch strikeout.  HE’S PERFECT THROUGH ONE!

7:12pm: As MLB Network’s Bob Costas notes, “The other team must have a starting pitcher.  It’s a rule.”  Thus, Jeff Karstens has taken the mound in D.C. for the Pirates.

7:14pm: Oh, and Karstens promptly gives up a solo home run to Nationals third baseman — and former Face of the Franchise — Ryan Zimmerman.  The Nats are up 1-0 through the first inning.

7:19pm:
Strasburg ran a 3-0 count on Pirates slugger Garrett Jones, but battled back with three straight 97-plus MPH fastballs.  Yikes.

7:22pm: The no-hitter is dead.  The perfect game is dead.  Strasburg just yielded an opposite-field single to Pittsburgh third baseman Andy LaRoche, once a highly-regarded prospect and now a .247/.312/.342 hitter on a bad Pirates team.  Ironic, no?

7:28pm: Strasburg struck out the side in the second inning with an array of nasty slurves, fastballs and changeups.  He’s thrown 30 total pitches, 18 of which have gone for strikes.  The Nats are expected to pull him right around 90. 

7:35pm: As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports notes, Strasburg threw a 90 MPH changeup in the second inning.  Karstens, the Pirates’ starter, hasn’t registered a fastball in the 90s at any point tonight.

7:40pm: This is incredible.  Really, just incredible.  Strasburg has fanned six of his last eight batters and the Pirates look absolutely hopeless.  Any major league team would.  The Nationals still lead 1-0.

7:44pm: Strasburg grounded out in his first major league at-bat and looked a little sluggish chugging down the line.  Let it be known that we here at HBT have spotted a weakness.

7:56pm:
Lastings Milledge, who played a forgettable season-plus with the Nats, is getting booed tonight in the nation’s capital.  Maybe there really are baseball fans in Washington.  Take that, Montreal.

8:01pm:
Welp, it appears Strasburg may be human.  He allowed three hits in the fourth inning, including a two-run homer to Pirates right fielder Delwyn Young, who shrugged off the hype surrounding Strasburg earlier this week:

“I really couldn’t care less, to be honest with you,” Young told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I got nothing to say, really. It’s just another pitcher. … Hey, Mark Prior.”

The Pirates lead 2-1 heading into the bottom of the fourth.  Strasburg has thrown 56 pitches.

8:14pm: After an impressive fifth, Strasburg is up to eight strikeouts and is still regularly hitting 99 MPH on the stadium gun.  He has tallied 70 pitches, though, so he will need to have an efficient sixth frame or the mass exodus at Nationals Park may begin.

8:23pm: The Nats failed to score a run in the fifth and still trail the Pirates 2-1.  I suppose Strasburg should start getting used to the lack of run support.  Bryce Harper, after all, is still a handful of years away.

8:27pm: Strasburg has faced 20 batters and struck out half of ’em.  That’s a total of 10 Ks, if you’re keeping score at home … and lack basic math skills.

8:28pm: OK, make that 11 Ks.

8:30pm: Strasburg has thrown 80 pitches through six innings, so he’s certainly capable of heading out for the seventh.  The sold-out crowd will want it.  I want it.  You guys want it.  Heck, Bob Costas wants it.  Everybody screeeeeeeeeaaam.

8:33pm: Nats first baseman Adam Dunn just crushed a two-run homer into the massive D.C. crowd.  Strasburg is now in line for the win with his club up 3-2.  Is this game reading like a fairy tale, or is that just me?

8:36pm: Nats outfielder Josh Willingham has joined the party with a solo charge to deep left field.  D.C. leads 4-2.  With that cushion, you have to wonder if manager Jim Riggleman will call it a night for Strasburg.

8:40pm: Costas just opined that Pirates reliever Evan Meek has been “anything but meek” this season.  You can’t write this stuff.  Wait, you can?  Check that.  You can, indeed, write this stuff.

8:44pm: All indications point to Strasburg coming out for the seventh inning.  He was in the batter’s box, ready to hit in the sixth and Nats reliever Drew Storen was warming up at a less-than-brisk pace in the bullpen.

8:46pm:
He’s out there!

8:49pm: Strasburg’s 85th pitch was clocked at 99 MPH and he just fanned the Pirates’ Garrett Jones for his 12th strikeout of the evening.

8:51pm:
He struck out the side on 13 pitches in the seventh inning.  That’s 14 Ks — a new Nationals franchise record.  Wow.  Just wow.

8:53pm: Strasburg is done torturing the Pirates for the evening.  He struck out 14 of the 24 batters he faced, and allowed only four hits and two earned runs in seven impressive innings.  He really only made one major mistake, leaving a pitch over the plate that Pirates outfielder Delwyn Young launched into the stands. 

The 21-year-old college and minor league phenom just became one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, at least in my eyes.  Everything he t
hrows is hard, and everything has tailing movement.  If Strasburg pitches every night like he did this Tuesday evening in D.C., we’re going to bear witness to some truly special performances, and maybe a special career.  He’s as good as advertised.  Heck, he’s better than advertised. And it would appear that the good people of Washington just found themselves something to root for in the summer other than a rain storm to break the dense humidity.

A far-fetched sounding drug test scam

NES TSIONA, ISRAEL - JANUARY 22:  A laboratory technician checks human blood samples before placing the glass tubes on an automated testing line at the Maccabi Health Services HMO central laboratory January 22, 2006 in Nes Tsiona which is located in central Israel. The laboratory, which operates a fully automated system complete with advanced robotics, can test more than 50,000 blood samples a day. The lab is considered one of the most modern of its kind in the western world.  (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
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Kevin Draper at Deadspin is passing along a story — and that’s not me editorializing; he’s admitting that it’s unconfirmed gossip at the moment — about a major league player paying a teammate $2.5 million to take the fall for him on a drug test. The story came via a tip from someone who, apparently, had a conversation about the drug test scam with a college baseball player who knew the players allegedly involved in the scam.

Here is how the conversation was recounted:

College Baseball Player: [MLB player’s star teammate] paid him to take his blood test. $2.5 million dollars.

Bar Patron: How does that even work?

College Baseball Player: [MLB player] and [MLB player’s star teammate] were getting tested the same day. They traded samples.

Deadspin says that the story is “probably bulls**t” but that some preliminary investigating they’ve done doesn’t disprove it and, to some extent corroborates it. How it’s been supported or not is left unclear and Deadspin couches all of this in a request for more information if anyone has any. Which, OK, fine.

I’ll offer that, on the surface, this seems like a bit more than mere “bulls**t.” It sounds structurally impossible. If it’s a blood test for HGH as the excerpt suggests, the samples are tested back in the lab to make sure they match up with previous samples. Meaning: the lab processing the sample knows if it’s your blood or not. If it’s a urine test, as Deadspin thinks it may have been, I’m not sure how samples could be switched given that urine tests are directly observed by testing officials. Yes, they watch you pee. They’d likely prevent you from peeing right next to your bro teammate, but even if you did, they’d see you exchange little plastic containers of urine with him.

I’m not going to say that this is 100% bull because we can’t really know for sure, but the scenario as described sounds highly unlikely, approaching the impossible. If someone had a story about bribing a sample taker with $2.5 million well, hey, maybe we’re getting somewhere, because that would get you over some procedural hurdles. For now, though, this all sounds like someone passing along a tall tale.

If it is true? Hoo boy, that’d be fun. At least for people like me who write about this stuff.

The deeper implications of the A.J. Ellis trade

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers heads to the dugout at the end of the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium on May 17, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The trade of a light-hitting backup catcher is normally about as inconsequential as it gets. The trade of A.J. Ellis by the Dodgers to the Phillies, however, is anything but that. Indeed, it may be the public manifestation of long-simmering, well, maybe “feud” is too strong a word, but a definite butting of heads between the team’s front office and its best player.

While almost all of the clubhouse drama in Los Angeles has surrounded a talented but aggravating corner outfielder currently toiling in the minors, Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times wrote last night that the Ellis trade could very well be seen as the front office’s shot across Clayton Kershaw‘s bow:

Kershaw’s preference of Ellis was the subject of a longstanding tug-of-war between Kershaw and the front office, which wanted Yasmani Grandal behind the plate as much as possible . . . Some players interpreted the trade as a message from the front office.

This isn’t Kershaw’s team. It’s not Corey Seager’s team or Adrian Gonzalez’s, either.

It’s Friedman’s.

The notion that Kershaw likes to pitch to Ellis is pretty well-known, but the idea that it was so strong a preference that it created a dispute as to whether he has final say over a roster spot is news, at least to people who aren’t around the Dodgers all the time. Hernandez is a good columnist and is particularly well-plugged in to the Dodgers after many years of being their beat writer for the Times. He wouldn’t throw the notion of there being something of a power struggle in this regard out there all willy-nilly in order to stir the pot or something. I don’t doubt for a second that something bigger than most of us have seen is going on here.

As for the trade itself: yeah, it’s pretty debatable as to whether it makes any kind of sense. Carlos Ruiz is likely an upgrade over Ellis, but it’s a pretty marginal upgrade when you consider how few plate appearances the Dodgers backup catcher will make for the rest of the year. It’s especially marginal if you assume, as Hernandez and others assume, likely with reason, that the loss of Ellis is going to harm morale. At least in the short term before they get to know Ruiz well (worth noting, though, that he comes pretty highly recommended from Kershaw-caliber aces for all the same reasons Ellis does). I can see a lot of reasons not to make that deal even for an extra hit or two a week that Ruiz may give you over Ellis.

All of which speaks to what we don’t know. What we don’t know about the mind of Andrew Friedman and whether or not there is something more going on here than is immediately apparent. About the relationship between him and Kershaw and, for that matter, him and the rest of the team that would cause him to make a deal that plays as poorly with his own players as this one does. It could be something about Ellis. It could be something about Friedman’s relationship with Kershaw. It could be something totally unrelated to any of that, such as offseason plans and the roster in 2017 (Ruiz has a team option for next year, Ellis is a pending free agent). Unless or until Friedman speaks or a reporter gets someone to shed more light on this, there will continue to be questions.

In the meantime, I’ll grant that there are certainly different rules which apply to superstars than mere mortals, but veto power over a trade and/or playing time for other players isn’t typically one of them. If, as Hernandez suggests, there was a sense that Kershaw and Friedman didn’t see eye-to-eye on that and it wasn’t otherwise being resolved, it makes Friedman’s move somewhat more understandable.