07/26/10 11:18 AM ET
Heyward, Strasburg make acquaintance
Rookie phenoms to square off on Tuesday for first time
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
And now we have this, a confrontation of dazzling rookies that is unmatched in our collective memories. This is not merely plebe vs. plebe; it is phenom vs. phenom. Brace yourself for Strasburg vs. Heyward on Tuesday night in D.C.
How intriguing! How delicious! Stud vs. Stud. If the game were suffering from public indifference -- and it is not -- this matchup would compel the masses. As it is, it has captured our imagination as few other one-on-one confrontations have in baseball, rookies or not. Perhaps not since Joe DiMaggio stepped in against Bob Feller 74 years ago have the careers of two heralded rookies intersected with such anticipation.
Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals' wunderkind, was characterized as one of the 10 best pitchers in the game before his first big league follow-through was complete. And Jason Heyward, the Braves' uber-talented right fielder, was conceded the NL Rookie of the Year Award before his big league debut -- and before Strasburg struck out 14 in his first start, on June 8.
"Strasburg and Heyward have a chance to play each other a lot. Heyward may see Strasburg 200 times over his career. It's a great thing for baseball. It's a great thing for both organizations," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said.
In less than two weeks, Strasburg became the game's singular sensation, as happened with Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Herb Score and few other first-year pitchers in the past 55 summers. He has been a defibrillator for the Nationals franchise as well.
Heyward seemingly has less of a hold on our imaginations, but in his nearly four months in the big leagues (an assignment to the disabled list included), he became the youngest player elected to the All-Star Game's starting lineup since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1990, has become a conspicuous force in the Braves' concerted effort to extend manager Bobby Cox's final season into late October, and is a primary everyday component in the team's rush to first place and the maintenance of its standing.
Now, before the hype becomes suffocating, cross your fingers and hope that Strasburg does, in fact, throw pitches to Heyward on Tuesday. The sore left thumb that had bothered Heyward for longer than a month prompted his DL assignment and deprived us of what would have been a first face-to-face on June 28. He wasn't about to risk aggravating the problem for the sake of a first appearance against a pitcher he seems likely to face for years. Heyward, who keeps his thumb on top when he grips his bat, wouldn't have enjoyed being jammed by a 91-mph changeup, much less Strasburg's searing heat.
The two-rookie element is what distinguishes this one, of course. First-year pitchers often create buzz, but rare is the position player whose first big league months command the attention Strasburg's have. As well as Heyward has performed, he is not the curiosity Strasburg is. Heyward is special, a five-tool player with size, backbone and a degree of charisma. Time lost and all, he remains a premier rookie in the NL and an intriguing figure. But it is less what he has achieved than Strasburg's strikeout acumen and status as a No. 1 selection in the First-Year Player Draft that fuels what we might see on Tuesday.
"He's as advertised," Cox said. "He's dynamite. He's something really good for the game of baseball, something that special. He's got maybe the best changeup for a first-year player that I've ever seen. Everybody talks about his fastball, but his changeup goes straight down at 90 or 91 mph. It looks like some of the guys' best heaters going straight down."
Timing makes a difference as well. Strasburg certainly has been more than the flavor of the month, but he achieved a high profile almost overnight. This is the time for him to face Heyward, while he is the water-cooler topic. Valenzuela was such a sensation that early in his rookie year, 1981. But what other rookie had a profile even remotely comparable? Tim Raines placed second to Valenzuela in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in '81, but when they faced off for the first time, on May 3 in Montreal, the confrontation was unhyped and unremarkable.
Of course, coverage was different then. Who was there to see Raines lead off the first inning with an infield single and go 1-for-4 with two strikeouts against Valenzuela? Now all parties in the alphabet soup media will be focused on ATL vs. WAS, looking for Ks and HRs in D.C.
The DiMaggio-Feller confrontation had significantly more time to percolate. It happened on Sept. 3, 1936. By then, DiMaggio, who had made his debut on May 3 at age 22, already had accumulated 80 extra-base hits -- 40 doubles, 15 triples and 25 home runs -- scored 111 runs and driven in 110, in 113 games. He was batting .340 with a .618 slugging percentage.
Feller, 17 and a sensation in every sense, had made six relief appearances before his first start, a 15-strikeout, six-hit, complete-game victory against the St. Louis Browns in Cleveland on Aug. 23. Seven days later, he allowed four runs in five innings at Fenway Park and lost.
Though the future Hall of Famers' respective teams were first and second in the American League when Rapid Robert faced Joltin' Joe, the game had little significance as far as a pennant race went. The Yankees led the Indians by 16 games when DiMaggio batted in the bottom of the first inning at Yankee Stadium.
Feller faced nine batters in the first inning and was gone, having allowed five runs. DiMaggio -- who flied out -- was one of the three batters Feller retired. (Arcane note: Feller and DiMaggio became routinely recognized as Nos. 19 and 5. As rookies, each wore No. 9.)
Strasburg vs. Heyward has percolated just enough, maybe a tad too much. At some point we will come to view their matchups as more routine. DiMaggio faced Feller 104 more times. For one night, though, it can be whatever you want to make of it -- Koufax-Mays, Marichal-Aaron, Gibson-Bench, Score-Mantle, Seaver-Stargell, Maddux-Bonds, Saberhagen-Ripken, McLain-Killebew, Spahn-Musial, Palmer-Reggie, The Big Unit-The Big Hurt.
Even if they are rookies.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.