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Strasburg Could Be a Striking Presence for Nats
Strasburg, however, acknowledged nothing more significant than the finish line. "Close game, Friday night, gotta pick up this win -- that's what I was thinking," Strasburg said. Gwynn "told me I might come out after the eighth and I was like, 'Hell no, I'm staying in. This is my game.' Because my adrenaline was just rushing so much. I felt like my [butt] was on the line every inning."
In Complete Control
After that night, Gwynn said, "people started paying attention to him." Fans sent autograph requests to his mother's address. Strasburg stopped using his iPod while walking across campus, because he didn't want to appear closed off to the students who suddenly recognized him. Confronted with a world where even minor slip-ups held bigger consequences, Strasburg -- often with some community help -- now had to take extra precautions. For a New Year's Eve party this year, a friend's parents booked him a hotel room.
But given a chance to revisit that game -- last week, Strasburg watched the DVD for the first time -- Strasburg processed the action not as something extraordinary, but rather, as an explicable sequence of strategy. Even 10 months removed, Strasburg remembered almost every pitch, and in the details there was no vision of a tall tale.
"Okay, this is [Jesse] Shriner," Strasburg, sitting on a stool in the players' lounge, said while watching an at-bat with Utah's catcher. "My freshman year, he ended up getting a game-winning single off me. I blew a save in the ninth inning because of this guy. So I was a little geared up for him. He's one of those guys where, typically, he'll just look for a fastball away and guide it. He's not trying to pull anything. This at-bat here, I go fastball in. Then I get him up and in, swinging. That was the pitch I got him with all game."
As Strasburg watched the game's final innings, he noticed how the nuances aligned just so. Baseball is a game of guessing, and guessing right is its science. With two outs and two aboard in the sixth, a right-handed batter for Utah swung way too late on a one-strike fastball, fouling it off toward the first base bleachers. Strasburg debated his next pitch. The previous foul indicated that the batter would need to start his swing earlier; he'd need to cheat. The previous foul also suggested, at least to most, that Strasburg should dial up another fastball.
"But see, he was thinking I'd double up," Strasburg said. "So now I'm thinking right here, I can strike him out with a slider."
He did just that.
Ask Strasburg about anything beyond his upcoming college season, which begins Feb. 20, and his answers are polished, practiced. He just wants to focus on helping his team win, he said. He doesn't care what team drafts him; he just wants to play in the big leagues. No, he doesn't know much about the Nationals. He doesn't even know what their ballpark looks like. Strasburg, a fierce creature of habit, prefers talking about the life he can control -- namely, the wonderful efficacy that his talent allows. If he wants to do something on the mound, it happens.
On the flat-screen television in front of Strasburg, the sun dipped. The final outs fell. Strasburg offered commentary about why he never throws his change-up in college games (it's the only pitch slow enough for them to hit) and about why most batters try to swing at the first pitch they see from him. ("Typically deeper in the count they don't stand a chance, to be honest," he said.)
"Right here, this is the last pitch" of the game, he said. "This one I was pretty much giving it everything I had left. You can see. One sign from the catcher. I'm bringing it."
The pitch was high and outside, pure smoke, swing and a miss. Strasburg's catcher leapt, pumped his fist and ran toward the diamond. Strasburg jumped off the pitcher's mound, but then just strode toward his catcher for a handshake. Soon, teammates and coaches were mobbing him, hugging him, rubbing his head. Strasburg, face still clenched, seemed less like a part of the celebration than an object within it. A rag doll, numb.
"I don't even remember what I was thinking here at all," Strasburg, watching, recalled of that moment.
Strasburg then allowed that he remembered at least one thing. Jesse Shriner, the catcher who just so happened to be the game's final out? He finished 0 for 4 with four strikeouts.