By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009
SAN DIEGO -- For the final home start of his college career, Stephen Strasburg -- the hardest-throwing, highest-achieving, most-scrutinized, soon-to-be-richest pitcher in the history of hype -- entered a world of impossible expectations. In his 11 previous starts this season, he had never lost, and almost never fallen short, and the last opportunity to watch him awakened a phenomenon.
On Monday, Strasburg's school, fearing its 3,000-seat stadium wasn't enough, issued 200 standing-room-only tickets for Friday night's game against Air Force. They disappeared in two hours. The school enlisted the help of an authenticator, who'd mark certain game-used items, saving them for museums and the college Hall of Fame. Some school officials even suggested that Strasburg wear a different hat every inning. "I shot that down," said Strasburg's manager, Tony Gwynn.
Just an hour before the game, the windowed ticket booth at Tony Gwynn Stadium posted a sign saying "Sold out." Fans outside the gates begged for extra tickets. Three representatives from the Washington Nationals -- acting general manager Mike Rizzo, scouting director Dana Brown and baseball operations director Brian Parker -- found seats eight rows behind home plate. Though the Nationals already owned a file containing information on Strasburg's family history, his genetics, his mental tendencies, his school attendance and his year-by-year pitching evolution, this performance offered a final chance for the team that holds the No. 1 pick in the June 9 draft to pull out the microscope.
"If the draft was today, he'd be our guy," Rizzo said before the game. "But the draft is a month from now, so a lot of things can happen. Guys can turn up their intensity and their performance, a lot of things can happen in a month. But if it was today, he'd be our guy."
Here in the final weeks of his junior year, Strasburg already had crammed the narrative of a tall tale into his college career. Entering the night, he averaged 16.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He had a 10-0 record and a 1.38 ERA. His 147 strikeouts led the nation. He dominated games with a ho-hum regularity, as if going grocery shopping. Family and friends close to Strasburg suspected that the pitcher maintained his performance because he trained himself so well to ignore the buzz it caused.
Strasburg's mom, Kathy Swett, closely follows the Nationals. Strasburg does not. ("I don't think he realizes what's happening," she said. "He's still finishing his schoolwork. He has finals. He's getting his assignments in.") Gwynn noticed that portion of Washington's front office watching the ace. The ace did not. ("No, I'm not pitching for them," Strasburg said. "I'm pitching for this program.")
This game, perhaps more than any previous game in his college career, created an overlap between his current life stage and his next one. The current one: That's the one Strasburg wanted to think about. How would he handle an aggressive, free-swinging Air Force lineup? How would he help his team boost its Mountain West Conference record to 11-8? What could his team do, so that Friday's record attendance of 3,337 wouldn't dwindle to 300 for the next game Strasburg didn't pitch?
Much as Strasburg hoped to disregard it, though, his future had already developed a special currency -- something already being appraised and re-appraised. This year, the Nationals have had at least one representative at every game Strasburg has pitched. Though some scouts have reported Strasburg fastballs at 103 mph, the Nationals think he tops out at 101. "Or maybe 102," Brown said. Some scouts, too, have declared Strasburg ready to slide right in as a No. 1 or No. 2 big league starter; both Rizzo and Gwynn disagree, believing his game will have to change at the next level.
"He's still got some learning to do," Gwynn said. "He would have some success, but I've said all along that he will have to throw more balls over the plate at the next level."
Still, more than a year of constant evaluation has convinced the Nationals they have a gem. "The mechanics are fine. There's no funk in his arm action," Brown said. "Everything is clean. He gets after it." Asked where the talent in this year's draft drops off, Brown said, without joking, "Well, there's a dip after number one."
The biggest concern with Strasburg extends not from his talent, but his demands. His adviser, Scott Boras, already has hinted that the 6-foot-5, 220-pound 20-year-old will want a record-breaking salary -- maybe six years and $50 million. Negotiations between Boras and Washington could last all summer, but on Wednesday night, Rizzo chatted with Boras for three innings in the agent's front-row seats at Dodger Stadium. The two have dealt with one another before, and share a respect. But their casual conversation opened the door for Rizzo to mention a certain right-hander he'd be watching come Friday.
"I'm here to see the pitcher in general," Rizzo said minutes before the first pitch. "How he performs. The poise he has on the mound. See the command he has with his pitches. We know what the radar gun is gonna say, but believe me, there's not much difference on the radar gun between 95 and 100. [Albert] Pujols doesn't care if it's 95 or 100. Or any good hitter in the big leagues. Kip Wells was throwing 95, 96 last night with a power slider and throwing for strikes, and he gave up two runs. Big league hitters are big league hitters. You better command the stuff, your stuff better be moving, and you better be resilient enough to come back when the ball is hit and you have some failure. That's what we're here for."
Strasburg took the mound. His performance, starting with the first pitch -- a 100 mph fastball, fouled straight back -- initially met the impossible expectations, then trumped them. He struck out two in the first inning. He struck out five of the first six, and media members, without sarcasm, were talking about his 22-strikeout pace. He didn't allow a base runner until the sixth inning, and that was a walk.
By the seventh inning, with San Diego State's offense having finally poked in a few runs, Air Force's line-by-line zeroes drew the crowd into a stir. Everybody realized. Even Strasburg. In his college career, he'd thrown one-hitters and two-hitters, but never a no-hitter. He needed just nine pitches to get through the eighth -- his first inning without a strikeout -- and by then, Gwynn didn't even worry about the pitch count, which stood at 103.
"I was like, 'People will kill us if I take him out,' " Gwynn said.
Most no-hitters come as a divined unlikelihood -- a succession of so many things aligning just right. Strasburg's never felt that way. He faced 28 batters, just one above the minimum, controlling them like marionettes. Seventeen struck out. Air Force had no hits and no near-hits.
In the final inning, Strasburg was throwing his best stuff of the game. "I was pretty much giving it everything I had left," he said. His teammates were lined against the dugout railing; his fans stood; Air Force's final hitter, Nathan Carter, faced a 1-2 count. Strasburg threw a slider that swooped in like a bird of prey; Carter watched, frozen. As the umpire pumped his arm, Strasburg took two steps off the mound and spiked his mitt to the ground. His catcher, Erik Castro, rushed to meet him, nearly tackling him by the legs. A full-team mob arrived seconds later.
"You've got the band out here, the cheerleaders, a sellout crowd," Strasburg was saying minutes later. "This is the way college baseball should be."
And that's what he kept talking about: College baseball. Not the future. Not the occasion.
"I don't think he really understands what's happened here," Gwynn said. "And somewhere along the line he's gonna say, 'Damn, I just threw a no-hitter in front of a packed crowd.' And I hope he feels good about it. Because we do. We're elated for him. Because all the press that he's gotten, you build him up, and there are people that want to see him fall flat on his face. And it just doesn't faze him. He knows what he has to do and goes out and does it."