Feb. 24, 2009

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Strasburg: Armed and Dangerous

By Abbey Mastracco



SAN DIEGO – Just a few short hours after one of Major League Baseball’s biggest personalities was humbled, one of college baseball’s biggest arms marveled at the fact that Alex Rodriguez was just now figuring out that baseball is a team sport.


“There are eight players behind me when I’m on the mound, and I definitely feel that if it wasn’t for them then we wouldn’t be able to win games.”


This was coming from a flame-throwing right-hander who last season not just broke, but shattered several San Diego State, Mountain West Conference and NCAA pitching records. This coming from the first amateur player to be selected to the Olympic team since Team USA started playing professional players in 2000. This from a player who struck out 23 batters against Utah last season and was still hitting 99 on the gun in the ninth inning. This is a player who tossed two one-hitters, one two-hitter and owned a conference ERA below 1.00 (0.63, to be exact).


And this is the player that is expected to hear his name, Stephen Strasburg, called first in June’s 2009 MLB Draft. No diva mentality here.


“My only expectation is to go out there and answer the bell every time I’m out and just help put my team in a position to win the game,” Strasburg said.


While his attempts to keep his team in the spotlight are honorable, his draft qualities are too overwhelming to ignore.


At 6-4, 220 pounds, the consensus All-American throws three solid breaking pitches and a fastball that tops out at 101 mph with a run between 4-6 inches that cuts in on right-handers. His repertoire includes a slurve and a changeup and a new two-seam sinker he’s just recently added. And his control is almost unwavering – last season his strikeout to walk ratio was a splendid 8-1 (133 strikeouts, 16 walks).


He shows tremendous poise on the mound in pressure situations. Strasburg went 4-0 pitching for Team USA team that went 24-0 over the summer and made two starts for the Olympic team in Beijing. He’s lucky enough to have a head coach in Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn who knows all about pressure situations, and is smart enough to take his advice.


And Strasburg displays an immense mental toughness and discipline that came from being broken down before building himself up.


“There’s times when you feel like you can’t take one more step but you have to,” Strasburg said. “The game works in mysterious ways. You’re going to have bad outings and you’re going to have good outings but you have to keep a level head throughout.”


Coming out of high school, Strasburg went undrafted. He weighed about 40 pounds more and his velocity was about 8-10 mph less. And that same coach who is giving him advice now wasn’t so sure about Strasburg back then.


“I didn’t see it,” Gwynn said.


Strength coach Dave Ohton didn’t see it either. In fact, after the first week of conditioning Ohton told Strasburg, “I think you should quit.”


Pitching coach Rusty Filter was the only one who really saw anything.


“[Filter] said ‘I just really feel like this guy could be something special.’” Gwynn said. “So I said ‘Ok, go get him.’”


“He’s like a second father to me,” Strasburg said of his pitching coach. “He’s always had faith in me, even when everyone else didn’t.”


Filter started with the weight loss, developing a plan with Ohton of weights, sprints and endurance. It was not easy, Strasburg says, but with results so impossible to ignore he kept at it, becoming meticulous and disciplined about working out, getting better and proving his critics wrong.


And somewhere along the line, Strasburg grew up.


“I always thought I had it in me,” he said.


The chubby, redheaded kid with a temper to match the hair is gone. The kid who most thought couldn’t hack it, whose teammates ragged on him and who was once told he should just quit is a shell of his former self.


“I think it was all just a matter of time and just getting the confidence that I needed,” Strasburg said. “It’s just a learning process and I definitely learned a lot since I’ve been here and I know there’s still a lot I still have to learn.”


With a dominant threat like Strasburg healthy and his arm healthy, SDSU’s chances of winning on Friday nights look good. And the Aztecs typically win with Strasburg on the mound, wheeling and dealing at 100-plus mph for nine straight innings – much to the dismay of some agents.


Concerns over Strasburg’s durability are only natural, as high-velocity guys have been known to fizzle out in the minors after being plagued with injury problems.


But Strasburg, who has had the same mechanics since high school, remains unconcerned. He has no plans on limiting his innings this season to appease any agents or save his arm for his pro career. He has looked into different representation options and acknowledges that Scott Boras is omnipresent in the Southern California baseball world, but Strasburg admits the draft is the furthest thing from his mind.


There’s only one reason Strasburg is thinking ahead to June, and it doesn’t have a dollar sign attached.


“I’m kind of not really looking at that right now,” Strasburg said. “I feel like this team is really capable of getting to the next level and getting to a regional right now. I feel like if we take care of business on the field, all the other stuff is going to work out.”


(photos courtesy of SDSU Media Relations Office)