Strasburg's journey begins Sunday

Strasburg's journey begins Sunday

For all of the attention he's received, for all of the hoopla surrounding his every move, for every story or column written about him, it's easy to forget that 21-year-old Stephen Strasburg has zero professional innings on his pitching resume.

That will change on Sunday afternoon in Altoona, Pa at 2 p.m. ET. That's when Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's Draft, will make his official professional debut with the Harrisburg Senators, the Nationals' Double-A affiliate. Fans looking to follow his start will be able to, as MLB.com will stream the game live and for free.

He'll pitch against the Pirates' club, the Altoona Curve, at Blair County Ballpark. There's an amusement park beyond the walls of the park, but it's likely the folks of Altoona have never seen a circus quite like the one that's expected on Sunday. The Curve staff has fielded close to 70 credential requests from nearly 30 different media outlets.

"With this first one, this is his first real professional outing," Nationals farm director Doug Harris said. "I think organizationally, we want him to walk off the mound in one piece, first and foremost. Let's get him through it, and let's move on. I don't expect to see anything from him different than what he's done."

What he's done unofficially has already created quite a buzz and made everyone in the nation's capital, and perhaps around baseball, set a Strasburg timer. First he went to the Arizona Fall League and showed the ability to dominate and bounce back from a rough outing.

Then came his first big league Spring Training, where he showed the ability to get Major League hitters out based on his pure stuff. But while there may have been external pressure and expectations to put Strasburg straight into the big league rotation, it's not something that really entered into Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo's mind. There's more to pitching and succeeding at the highest level than just pure stuff.

"We just want to see him develop," Rizzo said. "Improve each and every outing. Do things that we worked on, things from the plan we want him to work on. People say he's ready to pitch in the big leagues. I obviously don't think so, or he'd be here. He needs to put his time in. We want it to be that once he gets to the big leagues, he stays in the big leagues."

Step one will be to throw 85-90 pitches on Sunday. That doesn't stem from any kind of special "Stras Rules." That's standard operating procedures for any starting pitcher in the system. If anything, the Nats and their staff are working extra hard to make sure that Strasburg isn't given any kind of preferential treatment.

"We'll keep an eye on him, but I'm not going to show him any favoritism," Harrisburg manager and former big league catcher Randy Knorr said. "If he trips off the mound, I'm not going to run out there to see if he's OK. I don't think that's what he wants. He doesn't want the attention. He just wants to be a normal guy. If that's what he wants, I agree with him, and I'm going to treat him accordingly.

"What we're trying to do is just blend him in. There's so much outside going on, we want him to feel like he's everyone else. He's a low-key guy. He enjoys the game. I'm sure the media and things like that are wearing him down a little, but he's handling it pretty well."

Strasburg's time in the Minors goes beyond what he does on the mound, though Harris thinks there are still plenty of things he can learn about reading hitters' swings, making adjustments after going through a lineup a few times and locating that plus-plus fastball of his. It's more about him getting comfortable with his surroundings.

Up until this point, the right-hander has really only been Stephen Strasburg, the phenom. He's operated in the relatively relaxed atmospheres of the Arizona Fall League and Spring Training. Come Sunday, he starts to learn how to be Stephen Strasburg, the professional pitcher.

"It's taken for granted because of how physically gifted he is, that there's no learning curve," Harris said. "That couldn't be further from the truth. You hold [players like him] to a higher standard to a certain degree.

"The biggest part is him getting acclimated as a professional player and living his life day to day. He's a wonderful kid and great teammate, but you can't speed up time on that. I'm impressed with how humble he is. He's as humble as he is talented. The great pitchers, they don't seek the spotlight. They just want to go out and dominate. I think that's what we have here."

There seems to be a consensus that, assuming Strasburg does indeed go out and dominate, he's not long for Harrisburg or the Minor Leagues. It's a question of when, not if, he gets promoted and gets a chance to put his talents to the test at the highest level.

The Nationals, for their part, won't put any kind of timetable on any of that. They want to see their prized prospect get comfortable, work on what he needs to to be successful and move up when he's good and ready. Even they don't question the inevitability of it, knowing it's really going to be decided by Strasburg himself to show when he's ready.

"I've heard rumors, but no one has told me how long he's going to be here," said Knorr, who added that he might make sure to catch one of his bullpen sessions before Strasburg's Harrisburg stint is over. "Everyone has their speculations. All I know is he'll be here every five days. [When he goes], that'll be up to Stephen.

"I don't think he's looking ahead. I think he's excited about his first start. He thinks the tension, the novelty will go away. I don't think it will, because I think he'll be successful. He's hoping the more he pitches, the more it won't be as much. He wants to be comfortable. He just wants to be a professional pitcher."

He'll take the first step in that process on Sunday.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.