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Baseball

From One Pitching Phenom to the Next

Washington rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg catches the attention of Bob Feller

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Legendary Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller (left) says Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg is a "breath of fresh air." — Getty Images

Editor's note: Cleveland's Bob Feller, 92, died of acute pneumonia on Dec. 15, 2010.

In the second major league game of his well-chronicled professional career, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg took the mound at Cleveland’s Progressive Field to face the Indians before the home team’s biggest crowd since opening day. The reason was Strasburg, who in a very short time had become the talk of baseball.

Among those eager to catch a glimpse, appropriately, was 91-year-old Bob Feller, the greatest pitcher in Indians history and one of the best of all time.

The 21-year-old Strasburg began his major league career inundated by hype, attention and superlatives. He has been compared with such legendary pitchers as Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.

And Bob Feller.

But Ryan and Koufax and others destined for greatness struggled early in their careers. Feller was an instant hit at the age of 17. In his first start in 1936, he had 15 strikeouts. Three weeks later he struck out 17. In 1939, he became the youngest pitcher to win at least 20 games in a season. Seventy years ago, at 21, he pitched the only opening day no-hitter.

Feller pitched 18 years in Cleveland and was considered the dominant pitcher of his generation, despite losing nearly four complete seasons to military service during World War II. He enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and spent 26 months as an antiaircraft gunner aboard a battleship. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

‘Overpowering fastball’

Strasburg is four years older than Feller was when he made his debut, but he is still just a kid barely a year out of San Diego State University. With all eyes upon him and expecting to see something special, Strasburg delivered. He struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates and walked none in seven innings to record his first victory. No other pitcher has ever achieved such a combination his first time out.

It was no fluke. His 41 strikeouts in his first four starts is a major league record. Betrayed by the Nats’ hitting and fielding deficiencies, Strasburg’s record is just 2-2, but his 2.45 earned run average is among the National League’s lowest for starting pitchers. Perhaps most impressive are the 53 strikeouts and just 10 walks. He not only has met exceedingly high expectations, he has surpassed them and impressed nearly everyone, including Feller, who is not easy to impress.

“He has an overpowering fastball,” Feller told a Cleveland TV station after watching Strasburg pitch into the sixth inning against the Indians, giving up one run. “He’s worthwhile to go to see. He probably throws harder consistently than anyone in baseball at the moment.”

Feller added, “He’s a very refreshing breath of fresh air.”

As Bob Feller once was.

“I don’t think anything had ever happened like Feller,” Cleveland writer Bob August recalled a few years ago in Sports Illustrated. “It was the Depression and things were pretty bad here, and then this amazing kid came along. What a lift it gave us all. People today who don’t know exactly what he did still seem to sense how special Bob Feller was to Cleveland.”

Comparisons abound

Where Feller was a ready-made teenage phenom, Strasburg needed more time to develop. He had to slim down (he’s now a solid 6 feet 4, 220 pounds), get in shape and refine his mechanics. But like Feller, he is blessed with rare pitching gifts, skills that can be honed and improved but not taught. Also like Feller, he possesses laser-like intensity and a bulldog competitiveness.

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