Season of the pitch

June 13, 2010

Washington Nationals rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fifth inning of their National League baseball game in Washington, June 8, 2010. REUTERS/Jonathan ErnstPitchers have dominated the spotlight over the first third of Major League Baseball’s 2010 season, casting a spell over the hitters with Washington Nationals 21-year-old rookie Stephen Strasburg the latest to work his magic.

The most ballyhooed pitching prospect to hit the majors in recent memory, Strasburg satisfied the great expectations with a spectacular debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates last week.

The right-hander, who signed a record four-year, $15.1 million deal out of San Diego State University as top pick of last year’s draft, mixed his lethal arsenal of 98-mph fastball, 90-mph breaking ball, and 80-mph change-up with pinpoint control to carve up the Pirates in a 5-2 victory.

He struck out 14 and did not walk a batter in seven innings while giving up four hits. After yielding a two-run homer on a hanging breaking ball to Delwyn Young in the fourth inning, he retired 11 in a row, striking out the last seven men he faced.

Strasburg drew a sellout crowd of 40,315 to the park and created such a stir with his stuff that tickets sales took off in Cleveland, where he struck out eight batters and allowed two hits in 5-1/3 innings on Sunday for his second victory.

While Strasburg is undeniably gifted, his performance was the latest in a trend that suggests a swinging of the pendulum in baseball’s essential duel between batter and pitcher.

After an era fueled by steroids led to a massive increase in home runs, this post drug-testing period has seen pitchers seize the upper hand.

Less than three weeks after nondescript A’s left-hander Dallas Braden completed the 19th perfect game ever in the major leagues, Phillies ace Roy Halladay matched the feat on May 29.

Four days after that, Armando Galarraga came within one out — and one botched umpiring call — of achieving perfection for the Tigers in Detroit. Meanwhile, Rockies fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez, whose high-octane fastball darts like a breaking ball, has been the best of them all, allowing just 12 earned runs in posting a 12-1 record and an earned run average of 1.16.

Since some pitchers were also known to have used performance enhancing drugs during the so-called Steroids Era, observers were hard pressed to find a simple explanation for the shift in the balance of power between pitcher and hitter.

One might have to go back more than 40 years to find a more golden stretch for pitchers.

In 1968, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson of the St Louis Cardinals threw 13 shutouts and led the majors with an earned run average of 1.12, while Cleveland’s Cuban-born hurler Luis Tiant led the American League with an ERA of 1.60.

Major league officials were moved to lower the height of the pitching mound to neutralise the dominance of pitchers and bring more scoring back to the game.

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