Associated Press photo
Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 over six dominant innings in his Fenway Park debut.
Ruth. Cobb. Williams. Mantle. Musial. Yastrzemski. Griffey. Pujols. They all stood in the batter's box at Fenway Park.
Johnson. Grove. Feller. Gibson. Ryan. Clemens. Martinez. They all toed the rubber in the center of this baseball cathedral.
Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper don't belong among the company of those names, not yet. But the two young stars of the Nationals know the history of this game and know the history of this place. And when they stepped between the white lines at Fenway Park Friday night for the first time during a 7-4 victory over the Red Sox, they knew it was time to state their presence with authority.
"It was unbelievable," said Harper, who went 3-for-5 with a home run and three RBI. "I love those kind of atmospheres ... and I always pretty much rise to the occasion. I love playing in these situations."
"You know that you're playing in one of the most historic ballparks in the game," said Strasburg, who struck out 13 while throwing a career-high 119 pitches. "And to have the sellout crowd like that, it's awesome. It's awesome to go out there and be successful."
Awesome for Harper and Strasburg. And awesome for the Nationals, who with this convincing victory made another emphatic statement about their ever-growing stature as a force that will have to be reckoned with for years to come.
In a ballpark that has seen its share of phenoms shine, and against a franchise that has boasted some of the most well-known players in the sport, a star-studded Washington baseball team marched right in and stole the spotlight before a sellout crowd of 37,309.
Yes, these are strange times indeed. And thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying for the first-place Nationals, who got to see their two young studs seize the moment together in a manner no one had seen them do it before.
"Oh! Oh!" manager Davey Johnson exclaimed while talking about Strasburg and Harper's performance. "It was fun watching."
The night actually didn't begin so great for either player. Strasburg labored through a 27-pitch second inning, giving up two runs and putting his team in an early hole. Harper, meanwhile, looked foolish whiffing at a Felix Doubront curveball in the top of the first, striking out with a mighty cut.
"I think I just got a little overwhelmed with the atmosphere and whatnot," Harper said. "It was just a great atmosphere. I think I was just a little too anxious and tried to do a little too much."
But once they got settled in and made some adjustments, each young star flipped the switch and turned dominant.
Two innings after that unsightly strikeout, Harper dug in again against Doubront and laced a double. One inning later, he crushed a 92-mph fastball into the bleachers just to the right of the 420-foot sign in deep right-center.
As Harper raced around the bases upon clubbing his sixth homer in 36 big-league games, a funny thing happened. Whatever responses there were from the crowd were positive. Whether they were Nationals fans who made the weekend trip, Bostonians who simply appreciated the extraordinary feats of a 19-year-old or even members of the Red Sox who complimented him in mid-game, everyone was showering Harper with praise.
"Looking over at that dugout at [David] Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia ... it's pretty unbelievable," Harper said. "Going around the bases and Pedroia's saying: 'Great job,' ... and I'm 19 years old. So I still look at those guys as the guys I grew up watching. It was pretty unbelievable to see that."
The crowd and opponents were less complimentary Strasburg and more in awe of the 23-year-old, who kept getting better and better as the night wore on.
After serving up a two-run double to Mike Aviles in the second, Strasburg retired 11 straight. Of the final 12 outs he record, 10 came on strikeouts.
"He's like a [Justin] Verlander," Red Sox right fielder Ryan Sweeney said, referring to the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. "But he starts out throwing 97-98 the whole game."
And just when it appeared Strasburg might finally crack during a laborious bottom of the sixth, he dug deep and delivered the big pitches he desperately needed.
With the bases loaded and one out in the inning, Strasburg was already sitting on 106 pitches. He'd never thrown more than 108 in his professional career, but his manager didn't think twice about leaving him out there.
"There's no way I'm hooking him with the bases loaded," Johnson said. "I don't care what his pitch count was. I was going to have to fight ownership if I let him go too long, but I didn't want to have to fight Stras if I went and took him out."
How did Strasburg respond? He struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a curveball, his 113th pitch of the game. Then he struck out Kevin Youkilis on a 3-2 fastball at the knees that left Youkilis arguing with plate umpire Doug Eddings (and getting ejected for it) and left Strasburg (now 7-1 with a 2.41 ERA) dancing his way back to the dugout at the end of a brilliant, 119-pitch night.
"I mean, I knew it was up there," Strasburg said of his pitch count. "But I had so much adrenaline being in Fenway for the first time, it didn't really matter."
"That's the difference between great pitchers and ones that aren't," Saltalamacchia said. "He just did a great job of getting himself out of jams."
Strasburg's 13th strikeout -- on the two-year anniversary of his 14-strikeout, major-league debut -- represented the emotional climax of the game. The denouement was mostly academic, with Harper coming up a triple shy of the cycle and Tyler Clippard coming into a jam in the bottom of the ninth to record his sixth save.
By that point, many among the sellout crowd had departed. A group of Nationals fans seated near the first-base dugout proudly waved a large banner with the curly W logo; there was nothing the locals could do to respond.
And there was nothing those inside the Red Sox clubhouse could do at the end of the night but shake their heads in amazement at what they had just witnessed firsthand from a couple of of the game's newest stars.
"Two very impressive players," Gonzalez said.
Not to mention a very impressive team, a suddenly relevant franchise from a city not accustomed to baseball excellence, that with each passing day converts a few more believers.