Strasburg Could Be a Striking Presence for Nats

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- One evening last April, a 19-year-old named Stephen Strasburg threw a ballgame so sublime that it redefined the possibilities for his life.

Strasburg threw 128 pitches, only five of which were hit into fair territory. He struck out 23 and allowed one hit. Before the last out, Strasburg's catcher, roommate Erik Castro, motioned for the crowd of 582 to stand and make noise. Strasburg whiffed the last batter, no problem, and Coach Tony Gwynn rounded up his team, telling them, "You guys will probably never see a pitching performance like that again." Then everybody went for pizza.

At first, Strasburg didn't quite process the accomplishment. He was pleased, but mostly because his team won, 1-0. He interpreted all those strikeouts only as something necessary. His team needed every last one.

The aftershocks, then, proved a better measurement of Strasburg's accomplishment than the accomplishment itself. Before April 11, 2008, Strasburg was a prospect. After that, he became a prodigy.

Strasburg is now considered the consensus No. 1 pick in this June's amateur draft. Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, whose team just so happens to pick first overall, calls Strasburg "as good a pitcher as we've seen in the draft in 10 or 15 years."

On Saturday, the Nationals' pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Viera, Fla. But nobody in that current group matches the talent of Strasburg, who, if drafted and signed, could be in the Washington starting rotation by September.

A 20-year-old junior at San Diego State, Strasburg is a pitching paragon -- 6 feet 4, broad shoulders but wiry, sharp command, a cold stare, a fastball so good that it's nearly apocryphal.

"We've seen him as high as 101 miles per hour," said one of the Nationals' top scouts, Kris Kline.

"I've even heard 103," Strasburg's pitching coach, Rusty Filter, said. "I don't want to be quoted on that, but others have told me."

Though an underworld of scouts have tracked Strasburg since he arrived at San Diego State, that 23-strikeout game against Utah has widened the fascination, layering his pitching performances with a what'll-he-do-next irresistibility. In the last months, he has done plenty: He pitched in the Beijing Olympics, the lone collegiate member of the U.S. team; he met President Bush; he so distinguished himself from his amateur peers that last September, as the Nationals clinched the worst record in baseball, team officials confessed about seeing the overwhelming consolation prize.

Selecting him will be far easier than signing him. Within months, Strasburg, who recently quit his Bikram yoga classes because of the $89 monthly gym fee, will be in line for one of the richest signing bonuses in amateur draft history, certainly more than $6 million. Strasburg is being advised by agent Scott Boras, described by Strasburg's mom, with pure flattery intended, as a "Rottweiler." Strasburg picked Boras because the agent worked in the same manner that Strasburg pitched: Both of them share a gift for freaking out their opponents.

"I know that when it comes down to it," Strasburg said, "he'll go out there and fight for me."

CONTINUED     1           >

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