Stephen Strasburg is a pitching beast and the last thing he needs when he takes the mound is motivation. You see what happens in the NBA when cats talk junk to LBJ - the kind of guy who usually lets his basketball do the yapping. He gave those fools in Brooklyn 49 numbers and sent those Celtic turncoats packing for the summer in five games.
MLB Nation knew there was high potential for something special to go down on Monday night. Facing off for the first time was Nationals ace Strasburg, the first selection of the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft and less-lauded 8th selection Mike Leake of the Cincinnati Reds.
Adding drama to a basic storyline of two talented hurlers matching steam in a meaningless regular season game was the fact that these guys have serious history dating back to elementary school. The two San Diego natives played together on an 11-year-old travel team. In 2010, when Leake was a rookie, he was asked about that experience. He said Strasburg was “overweight, pouty and used to cry.”
Leake went on to say that Strasburg did a “complete 180 and that it’s amazing how he’s changed,” but according to MLB Network, “those words didn’t sit well with Strasburg who was apparently fired up about the article, waiting to get the last word on the diamond.”
A Yahoo Sports article from the same year detailed the time Strasburg’s emotions got the best of him at a national youth tournament in Shawnee, Kan. With Leake at catcher, Strasburg melted down during a tough inning and his parents and coaches agreed to send him home to San Diego.
Back in San Diego, Erik Castro, Strasburg’s catcher at SDSU and the best man at his wedding, read the [USA Today] story and — knowing how it would make Strasburg burn — immediately called him to see if he had seen it. Strasburg had seen it, all right. And he was steaming.
Leake was officially on The List.
“It really fired him up,” Castro said . “I was the first person to talk to him about it. He got so fired up. He wants to pitch against [Leake]. He said some other things that aren’t appropriate to put in a newspaper. But he definitely wants a piece of that kid.”
I’d call the contest a draw, but this is just the beginning of this MLB saga. Both pitched solidly, but neither was dominant. Leake left in the seventh inning with a 2-1 lead, before Aroldis Chapman blew another one in the ninth. Leake saw the bullpen blow its third save in games he has left with the lead.
Strasburg went seven, giving up two earned runs but only fanning two.
Leake, who remains winless over his last six starts, previously said that he was looking forward to facing Strasburg and welcomed the competition. He only has three wins to show for it, but Strasburg is looking official like name brand these days, posting a sub 2.00 ERA over his last five starts. This season he’s whiffing an average of 10.9 batters per nine innings, which is slightly above his career average of 10.5.
The baseball gods had other plans for this one.
By the time the Reds defeated the Nationals 4-3 in 15 innings, Strasburg and Leak would be footnotes in a game that saw defensive wizards like Brandon Phillips and Billy Hamilton win the game as much with their gloves as Todd Frazier did with his two-run jack in the top of the 15th that gave the Reds a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“It feels good man,” said @DatdudeBP, who was just 1-7 in the game with a run scored. Phillips’ diving catch of a smoking line drive up the middle with runners on the corners and two outs in the bottom of the 12th inning, robbed Nats catcher Wilson Ramos of a game-winning hit, and held the game at 2-2 . It was one of the dopest grabs you’ll ever see a second baseman make.
“I mean if you ain’t hitting, you’ve got to do something right,” Phillips told MLB Network. “So I just saw the ball up the middle and I just went after it man, and only thing I know I just feel Cozy (Zack Cozart) go crazy over there at shortstop. It’s a beautiful thing when you can do something to help the team out.”
In the bottom of the 14th, Anthony Rendon came to bat with the winning run on third for the Nats and the stadium crowd was in a frenzy. Most felt there was no way the Reds could keep playing Houdini with men on third and the game morphing into a continuous double header. Rendon hit a blast to right center that looked headed for green, but MLB’s Human Flash, better known as Billy “The Slid” Hamilton covered ground quicker than California Chrome in the Preakness and made a diving catch to preserve the tie and set up Frazier's magic.
"I knew if I was going to get it, I had to go right away," Hamilton said. "If I hesitated one little step, it would have been down."
“My catch was better than Billy’s though,” an elated, typically cocky, clownish and deliriously tired BP said in the locker room. “If it wasn’t for me, Billy you wouldn’t of had a catch…but I’m glad you caught the ball.”
History was made at Nationals Park, but it had nothing to do with a classic pitcher's duel fueled by a juvenile and judgmental disposition. The 15-inning marathon was the longest game between the franchises since 1976, and probably the most exciting.