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."Straight as an Arrow
Strasburg is tracked like an investment, his right arm's every movement recorded for amazement or deconstruction. In November, three teams, the Nationals included, sent scouts to watch Strasburg throw 20 pitches in the bullpen at 60 percent strength. Still, the best of Strasburg's ability is preserved for all witnesses in a 2-hour 33-minute DVD, recorded April 11, 2008. Those at San Diego State's athletic department keep copies handy; if so desired, a visitor to the Aztecs' campus can relive all 23 strikeouts while holding the remote. Doing so, it turns out, doesn't just commemorate Strasburg's most famous game. It also explains much about his future.
"He had it going," said Gwynn, the San Diego State head coach since 2003. "It was like all the moons had aligned. Normally when I'm watching a pitcher I'm thinking, 'Okay, I could hit this guy.' That night, I was like, 'Damn, I don't know what I would do with that.'
"Just watch. You'll be amazed."
The performance had every ingredient necessary for myth-making. The week before that game, Strasburg got sick. Very sick. First the flu, then strep throat, then an ear infection. A few days before his scheduled start he called his mom: I need to go to the emergency room. He took antibiotics and tried to tough it out -- he even attended two classes that morning -- but when his mother saw him warming up that night, she thought he looked pale.
"Okay, can you get through five today?" Filter, the pitching coach, asked.
"We'll see," Strasburg said.
He struck out the side in the first. He allowed no hits through five. The game stayed scoreless, which helped Strasburg channel his adrenaline. Soon, he had that look going. Eyes like pin-needles. He didn't even notice the scouts behind home plate. Others in the San Diego State dugout started lining up sunflower seeds to count the strikeouts, but Strasburg remained oblivious. Nobody, teammates later said, had better tunnel vision.
In high school, Strasburg had quit basketball and soccer because they interfered with travel baseball season, part I, and travel baseball season, part II. He moved out of his dorm five days into college because the noise prevented him from getting a full sleep before morning practice. Though Strasburg had reported to college at 250 pounds, the torture of sweating off the extra weight never prevented him from wanting to. First to show up, first to throw up -- that's how it worked during his freshman year conditioning sessions, when he trimmed down to 225.
He was a straight arrow, always. Carried a 4.67 grade-point average in high school. Picked up his baseball mitt every day of the year. Never even attended a concert until January. "He knows how to close in on a goal," his mother, Kathy Swett, said.
And here he was, arrow-straight, mowing down the best-hitting lineup in the Mountain West Conference. He escaped a minor jam in the sixth by striking out three more, Nos. 13, 14 and 15. He struck out Nos. 16, 17 and 18 in the seventh. But by the eighth, Gwynn and Filter started worrying about their ace's pitch count. He'd been a closer the year before. Gwynn motioned to his pitching coach.
"Okay, he's past 100," said Gwynn, looking at the pitch count tracker in his hand. "What do we do?"
By this time, Strasburg had a second wind. His velocity kept hitting the mid- to upper-90s, and batters were guessing, flailing, just about starting their swings while Strasburg was in his windup. In other words, it was a devilish time for some sliders. When Strasburg finished the eighth by striking out the side, Castro, his catcher, already was thinking to himself: "Man, this will never happen again. I'll be a part of history."
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.