Stephen Strasburg Hype Comparable to That of LeBron James, Sidney Crosby


Washington Nationals' prospect Stephen Strasburg is set to make the most celebrated major league pitching debut in years.

The anticipation of his coming-out party rivals the debuts of two other prodigies: LeBron James' 2003 NBA christening and Sidney Crosby's 2005 NHL arrival.

David Price can relate. So can Tim Lincecum and Clay Buchholz.

"He knows he's a big leaguer," said Price, dubbed a can't miss prospect before joining the Tampa Bay Rays. "He wants to prove to everybody else he is a big leaguer."

And everybody wants to see if can live up to the hype.

Price made his highly anticipated pitching debut as a reliever at Yankee Stadium, and the former Vanderbilt star allowed two runs and three hits over 5 1/3 innings.

Both James and Crosby played well in their openers.

James scored 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting and finishing with six rebounds, nine assists and four steals in his first game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a 14-point road loss at Sacramento.

Crosby assisted on Pittsburgh's only goal in a loss to New Jersey in his Penguins debut. He scored his first goal in the team's home opener.

Tuesday night all eyes with be on Strasburg; the No. 1 pick in last year's draft out of San Diego State who signed a record $15.1 million, four-year deal.

Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka made a big splash internationally when he signed a $52 million contract with the Boston Red Sox before the 2007 season. Even he's fascinated by the attention Strasburg has drawn since last June.

"I think that the expectations placed on him are even higher than what was placed on me," Matsuzaka said through a translator. "But the fact that expectation exists means that there's talent there."

The 6-4, 220-pound Strasburg has been more than just impressive in the minors, going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA in stints with Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse.

Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, also ascended quickly through the minor leagues. He was a combined 12-1 with a 2.30 ERA — and made his big league debut in mid-September 2008.

A month later, the hard-throwing left-hander was on the mound when the Rays clinched the AL pennant, introduced then-presidential candidate Barack Obama at a rally the following day and became the quickest overall top pick to play in the World Series.

In his debut, Price struck out four and walked none, with Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Ivan Rodriguez among those he fanned.

Price retired six straight batters before Derek Jeter's home run made the young lefty a footnote in Yankees history: The solo shot tied Jeter with Lou Gehrig for the most hits all-time at Yankee Stadium.

"It was cool. First pitch was an out. I threw seven pitches in the first inning," Price recalled. "I got a punch-out of a future Hall of Famer in my first inning in Pudge, so it was good."

Lincecum was the 10th pick in the 2006 pick and was already nicknamed "Franchise" before giving up two-run homers to Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino while yielding five runs — four earned — and five hits over 4 1/3 innings of his debut for the San Francisco Giants in May 2007.

The Phillies won the game, but Lincecum was not involved in the decision.

"It's one of those things just kind of remember what got you there," Lincecum said. "At the same time, remember that this game teaches a lot of players to be humble. Just be open to a lot of things that can happen."

Just ask Mark Prior.

He was the second pick in the 2001 draft and his $10.5 million deal was a record for an amateur player until the 21-year-old Strasburg came along. Prior made his first appearance for the Chicago Cubs in May 2002 and was an All Star the following season before injuries derailed his promising career. He hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors since 2006.

Unlike Strasburg, Price and Lincecum did not have their every move scrutinized in the minors like the Nationals prospect.

Each of Strasburg's starts the past two months have drawn bigger-than-usual crowds. Fans everywhere have been able to track his progress through television reports and extensive coverage in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet.

"I saw [Roger] Clemens in his prime when I coached with the Red Sox. I played with Steve Carlton, and I faced J.R. Richard, who threw 100 miles an hour. [Strasburg] is pretty damned good," said former major leaguer Richie Hebner, now a batting coach at Triple-A Norfolk.

"When you get 13,000 people" in Syracuse's Alliance Bank Stadium, "I'm not the only one who wants to see him."

Price is comfortable dealing with the media, but doesn't envy what Strasburg's had to endure.

"I think he's definitely had it the worst," Price said. "But he's handled it well."

Lincecum agreed it can be difficult balancing the hype.

"I soaked in the moment when I could," the two-time NL Cy Young Award winner said. "I had my teammates around me. It was nice to have those guys making me appreciate the game and respect the game."

Matsuzaka's flashy debut in April 2007 saw the Japanese righty strike out 10 and walk one while giving up one run and six hits over seven innings of a Boston road victory over Kansas City.

A decade earlier, Hideki Irabu's big league debut after a standout career in Japan was described as one of most ballyhooed for a Yankees rookie in more than 40 years, perhaps since Mickey Mantle's career began in 1951.

Though Irabu never met expectations the Yankees had when they signed him to a $12.8 million contract, the right-hander didn't disappoint in his first outing — striking out nine while two runs, five hits and four walks over 6 2/3 innings.

"I think he just needs to trust in his own pitches," Matsuzaka said of Strasburg, "and the results will follow naturally."

Price said based on what he's seen, and the way the Nationals pitcher performed in the minors, Strasburg is deserving of the attention he's received before ever throwing a pitch in the majors.

"He's got pretty good numbers down there, even though it is a lot different in Double-A and Triple-A from up here," Price said.

"His stuff is some of the best stuff I've seen on ESPN, even though they're only going to pick out the good stuff to show. They don't show you the balls that he throws. But from the strikes I've seen him put on guys, he's pretty good."

Buchholz won his first big league start for the Red Sox in 2007, then threw a no-hitter in his second.

As a player, and a fan of the game in general, he's curious to see what happens Tuesday.

"I think everybody will. He's been the most talked about big leaguer in baseball as far as newcomers to the game. It'll be interesting," Buchholz said.

"You always hope for the best, but there's going to be some bad times with some really good times. He just has to have an even flow, try not to get too high or too low."

Strasburg is hoping Tuesday night will be one of those good times.

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