(Just arrived in Texas, where I’ll pick up the Mariners coverage the next three days).
By a stroke of good fortune — and the continued commitment of the Seattle Times to allow me to pursue significant baseball stories even in these trying economic times for newspapers — I found myself at Tony Gwynn Stadium in San Diego last Friday to watch Stephen Strasburg’s final regular-season start for the San Diego State Aztecs.
In fact, I found myself in Tony Gwynn’s office about seven hours before game time, talking about his junior phenom. (Yes, just like Dean Smith used to, Gwynn does his coaching in a stadium bearing his name. I give Gwynn a lot of credit. When he took the San Diego State job, I thought it might be just a cameo, and when he realized the grunt work it entailed, he would say “adios.” But this is Gwynn’s seventh season. It’s obvious he’s made a serious commitment to turning around the program at his alma mater, and landing a Strasburg is a huge step in that direction). I joked to Tony that he must be “all-Strasburged out,” with the huge amount of attention that the kid is getting, but he seemed to enjoy raving about Strasburg for the umpteenth time. And, I suspect, he knows that every story helps recruiting.
I’ll get into far more detail about Strasburg, and the atmosphere at Friday’s game, in an in-depth feature that will run in Sunday’s paper. But I just wanted to give some overall impressions of an outing that left me so exhilirated I found myself calling friends just to rave about what I’d witnessed. I’ve also included some photos that I hope give an indication of the excitement that Strasburg is causing on campus — and he didn’t let them down. (In the photo above, the SDSU cheerleaders perform on the Aztecs’ dugout while Strasburg warms up between innings. The sports editor of the Daily Aztec told me he had never before seen cheerleaders at a baseball game — nor the school band, which sat in the stands and performed throughout the game). Here’s a picture of students lining up outside the stadium for tickets three hours before the first pitch:
I’ve got to say, it’s been a long time since one performance had me so jacked up. As I’m sure you’ve heard or read by now, Strasburg fired a no-hitter, striking out 17, against Air Force, in a 5-0 Aztecs victory. He’s now 11-0, with a 1.24 ERA, and has 164 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings (and just 17 walks). For all that I’d read about Strasburg, and the YouTube videos I’d watched, I still was blown away by his overpowering stuff, his command, his presence — the whole package. Totally dominant.
The word we got is that he hit as high as 101 on the speed gun in this game — not the 103 he’s reached on several occasions, but still eye-popping. And according to my eye, and the word of SDSU catcher Erik Castro, he was throwing just as hard, if not harder, in the ninth as in the first. Strasburg threw 116 pitches, so that’s saying something.
But I come not to rave about his fastball. It’s pretty obvious that Strasburg throws high heat. What I came away far more impressed by was his breaking pitches — particularly a sharp-breaking “slurve” that ought to be illegal at the collegiate level. His final out of the no-hitter came on a slurve that completely froze Air Force’s Nathan Carter for strike three, setting off jubilation at Tony Gwynn Stadium. The team engulfed Strasburg, as you could well imagine, and the record crowd of 3,337 gave him a long standing ovation. Eventually, Strasburg and the team gathered along the third-base line and led the crowd in a spirited rendition of the Aztec fight song. Here’s a photo — a bit fuzzy — of the team swarming Strasburg after the last out, followed by another (fuzzier) of him leading the fight song:
Among those in attendance was Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who happened to be in the neighborhood because the Nats had just finished a series at Dodger Stadium. Their scouting director was also there, and other members of Washington’s organization. If Rizzo had any doubts about Strasburg whatsoever, I’d have to think they were completely erased. The only possible way the Nats don’t pick him is if Scott Boras, Strasburg’s advisor, threatens a Nationals’ boycott by Strasburg, a la John Elway with the Baltimore Colts when he was drafted out of Stanford and forced a trade to Denver. And I just don’t see that happening. Unlike the NFL, MLB draft picks can’t be traded. Other than going to Japan to play, or spending a year in the independent leagues (which Boras clients have done before), Strasburg doesn’t have any other options than to sign with Washington, if he wants to play. The Mariners can dream, but it’s harder and harder to envision a scenario whereby Strasburg falls to them at No. 2. By all accounts of scouts and scouting experts that I’ve talked to, this is one of the widest gulfs between No. 1 and No. 2, talent-wise, in recent memory. I’ve read all the stories about the sordid history of busts among pitchers taken high in the draft, but if anyone can break that trend, it’s Strasburg.
it was fun talking to him after the game. He was running on pure adrenalin, still pumped from his no-hitter. If you want to find out the whole Strasburg story — it’s a fascinating one, I promise; he was so unimpressive an athlete in high school, Gwynn had to be talked into recruiting him by his pitching coach, Rusty Filter; Strasburg struggled so much with his conditioning that San Diego State’s strength coach dubbed him “Slothburg” — be sure to read Sunday’s Seattle Times.
When I was done interviewing Gwynn before the game, he told me an anecdote about another reporter, one who covered the University of New Mexico. Gwynn raved about Strasburg to him, and ended with the same advice he had for me (and probably every other reporter): “Just watch him. No matter how much you hear about him, you have to see him for yourself.” After the game, another mighty Strasburg performance (a complete-game, 1-0 victory over the Lobos, with 14 strikeouts), the New Mexico reporter sought out Gwynn and had just two words: “As advertised.” Gwynn said that perfectly summed up Strasburg. So after Friday’s game, I waited until all the reporters had asked their questions and I got Gwynn alone, “Never mind ‘As advertised,’ ” I said to him. ” I’ve got a new one for you: ‘Better than advertised.’ ”
He liked that a lot.