Commentary

Nationals uprising rocks Fenway

Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper overpower the Sox in their Boston debut

Updated: June 9, 2012, 2:28 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- And then there are those very rare, very special nights when even the hype machine fails to give its subjects their proper due.

That noted poet, Robert Valentine, came closer than most before Friday night's game at Fenway Park. He was rhapsodizing about Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, but the Boston Red Sox manager could just as easily have been speaking about Bryce Harper, the younger of the Nationals' two prodigies.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe rainbow that is Stephen Strasburg appeared in the Friday night sky at Fenway.

"He is like looking at a rainbow," Valentine said even before Strasburg overwhelmed the Red Sox, striking out 13 in six innings in the Nats' 7-4 win over Boston before a crowd of 37,309. "You don't miss it; it is rather a beautiful sight."

Strasburg, featuring a fastball that touched 100 mph, a changeup that violated the laws of nature and a curveball bereft of compassion, struck out seven Red Sox in a span of eight batters. There's no telling how many strikeouts he might have finished with if his pitch count hadn't climbed to 119 with nine outs to go.

"I knew I was up there, but I had so much adrenaline being at Fenway for the first time, it didn't really matter," Strasburg said.

But if Strasburg (7-1) is the rainbow, then center fielder Harper is the Transit of Venus, an astronomical phenomenon that appears, oh, once a century or so.

Harper homered to the right of the 420-foot triangle in center, doubled and singled, driving in three runs and scoring two, in one of the most precocious performances the 100-year-old edifice has ever seen.

He even had time for introductions.

"There was a guy up top yelling from the Green Monster, just trying to get me to wave at him," Harper said, "and I finally waved at him, so that was fun."

Here is a list of teenagers who have hit home runs at Fenway Park as visiting players: Robin Yount, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline. All three are Hall of Famers. Only Yount, at 19 years and 204 days, was younger than Harper, 19 and 236.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesBryce Harper celebrates after becoming the fourth visiting teenager to homer at Fenway.

And here are the teen-agers who have had three hits in a game at Fenway in the past 72 years: Kaline, 18. And Ken Griffey Jr., 19, who went 3-for-4 in a 10-0 Seattle loss on May 25, 1989.

The Red Sox were not shy about letting Harper know how they felt about him Friday night.

"Going around the bases and [Dustin] Pedroia said, 'Hey, great job,' and [Mike] Aviles saying 'great job' and whatnot," Harper said. "I'm 19 years old, I still look at those guys that I grew up watching. It was pretty unbelievable coming in here and beating a good Red Sox team like that.

"David Ortiz came up to me before the game. He actually blew me a kiss at the All-Star Game last year."

Harper was at the All-Star festivities last year for the Futures Game, held to showcase the best minor league talent. His future, obviously, has arrived faster than most. His performance Friday didn't exactly catch the Sox by surprise.

"Everyone knew his talent was far superior to any 19-year-old athlete in the world," Adrian Gonzalez said. "That's why he was able to come up here and have success.

"You knew the talent was there. He's got power. He can hit for average, he's got a great arm, he can run, he's got all those things. "The one thing that he will need is a head on his shoulders."

And all the early signs -- including the way he did a Carl Lewis sprint around the bases after his home run -- are encouraging on that score.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Bob DeChiara/US PresswireBryce Harper proved to be a quick study after striking out in his first at-bat, finishing 3-for-5.

"He's a special talent," Sox veteran Nick Punto said. "There's no question. For me, what I like more than the talent is how hard he plays the game, how right he plays the game. His teammates seem to really enjoy him.

"He's going to make 19-year-old mistakes as far as our fraternity goes, just MLB players. He's going to say things wrong. I would, too, at 19, no question. But I'm enjoying watching him mature, in days, in weeks.

"He's going be a nice player. He's going be great for the sport, he's going be great for us, he's going to be a big name in our game."

Imagine what Harper might have done if he hadn't initially succumbed to the Fenway aura in his first visit here since he was a Little Leaguer.

"I think I got a little overwhelmed with the atmosphere and whatnot," he said of his first at-bat when he went down swinging against left-hander Felix Doubront. "It's a great atmosphere and I think I was a little too anxious, and trying to do a little too much in that situation.

"The crowd was going crazy and whatnot, but it was a little more different than my [big league] debut."

It obviously didn't take him long to settle in. In the second, he ran down a ball Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit into the gap. In the third, he doubled and scored. In the fourth, he just missed the furniture sign adjacent to the triangle with his sixth home run of the season.

And in the sixth, he fought off a tough pitch from lefty reliever Rich Hill and singled home another run. He had a chance to hit for the cycle when he led off the ninth, but grounded to short; even then he made it a close play.

"Harper was amazing in everything he did out there, including on that ball Salty hit to the gap," Valentine said.

"He came out of nowhere to catch that ball. Then he threw that ball to the plate on one hop from the wall in the ninth. He almost beat out a ball for an infield hit. He was very impressive."

So, obviously, was Strasburg, who is a grizzled 23 and more than 21 months removed from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. No pitcher had whiffed 13 Sox hitters in Fenway Park since Mike Mussina K'd 13 on Sept. 2, 2001, the night that Carl Everett broke up a perfecto with two outs in the ninth.

Only seven pitchers have fanned 13 or more Sox batters anywhere since 1990, including Mussina and Roger Clemens twice apiece.

"He gets that pitching thing very well," Valentine said, resorting to more plain-spoken language to describe Strasburg, whose final whiff of the night resulted in the ejection of Kevin Youkilis. The Red Sox third baseman did not take going down for the count a third consecutive time without raising a fuss with plate umpire Doug Eddings, who was in no mood to listen on a night that Strasburg generally commanded the strike zone with great precision, which probably earned him the benefit of the doubt on borderline pitches like the one that claimed Youkilis as victim.

And as with Harper, Strasburg did not come as a surprise.

"We knew what to expect," said Gonzalez, who was robbed of a home run off Strasburg by Xavier Nady's leaping catch at the low bullpen barrier in the third, then connected for his 200th career home run off Nats' reliever Ross Detwiler in the eighth.

"We've seen enough of it on TV and video. We knew what we were going up against. I thought we did a good job, but he was a better man out there."

And the Nats -- who in a previous baseball incarnation earned Washington the distinction of being "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" -- were the better team. First in the National League East, 10 games over .500, while the Sox languish in last in the AL East, back at the break-even point (29-29).

And by Saturday, when these teams reconvene, Harper will be a day older. One can only imagine what that might mean.

ESPNBoston.com intern Bill Humphrey contributed to this story.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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