Cavaliers Beat Strasburg in Tournament
Saturday, May 30, 2009
IRVINE, Calif., May 29 -- The ball launched into the sky with a mighty ping of aluminum-on-horsehide and crashed with a thud into a plastic scoreboard in left field that read "ANTEATER BALLPARK." It was met with an audible gasp from one side of the stadium and ecstatic cheers on the other. It was eight pitches into Stephen Strasburg's NCAA tournament debut, 11 days from the Major League Baseball draft, and he was in an utterly unfamiliar position -- trailing, stung, vulnerable.
The San Diego State junior and the best amateur pitcher on the planet would recover from the blow, gather himself and throw seven solid innings. But Strasburg's air of invincibility was wounded. He is not unbeatable. The Virginia Cavaliers proved that, scoring twice off Strasburg on Friday night and winning their NCAA regional opener, 5-1.
A standing-room-only crowd that included Strasburg's advisor, baseball super-agent Scott Boras, and the requisite two scouts from the Washington Nationals saw Strasburg, 13-0 with one no-decision this season until Friday, lose for the first time in any type of competition on any continent since the Cubans beat him last August in the Beijing Olympics.
Still, the outing was only a disappointment by Strasburg's outrageous standards and likely did little to dissuade the Nationals from selecting him with the first overall pick of the draft on June 9. Despite a slow start and without his best fastball, he still wound up with 15 strikeouts, boosting his NCAA-leading total this season to 195 in 109 innings, while his ERA, also tops in the nation, rose from 1.24 to 1.32.
"Everybody had the jitters," Strasburg said. "But it's the regionals, so I felt perfect."
The young man who became just the fourth hitter this season to homer off Strasburg was Cavaliers designated hitter Phil Gosselin, who yanked a 97-mph, first-pitch fastball. Gosselin tried his best to round the bases and touch the plate as if it were no big deal, but he couldn't suppress a giant smile as his teammates mobbed him outside the Cavaliers' dugout.
The Cavaliers' pitching machine back east could only be cranked up so high, so to prepare for Strasburg's famed heater, their hitters moved closer and closer to the machine itself, taking cuts from a distance of perhaps 30 feet to simulate the reaction time.
"We heard he had pretty electric stuff," Gosselin said, "and he did."
But Strasburg needed 20 pitches to escape the first inning, then 28 to escape the second, when the Cavaliers cobbled together a second run. He looked uncomfortable on the mound, pawing at the dirt in front of the rubber. His fastball was clocking in at 94 to 96 mph most of the time. He made a fielding error. He threw wild pitches on back-to-back breaking balls. In terms of results, if not aesthetics, he was being outpitched by Cavaliers right-hander Robert Morey.
But after the shaky start, Strasburg began to resemble the pitcher who has been called the best pitching prospect of all time. From the third inning on, he retired 15 of the 18 batters he faced, 10 of them by strikeout, and relied more heavily on his fastball.
The win brought a strong measure of validation to the Cavaliers, who won the ACC title only to be rewarded by being sent clear across the country to join the toughest regional in the tournament -- one that included the No. 1-ranked team in the country (UC Irvine), the defending College World Series champs (Fresno State) and the greatest pitching prospect in the history of the known universe.
Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn spent much of the week deflecting questions about the identity of his starting pitcher for Friday's opener, declining to reveal whether it would be Strasburg or someone else. But the Cavaliers were not fooled in the slightest by the gamesmanship.
"We prepared for [Strasburg] all week," Gosselin said. "And when we found out it was him, we were pretty excited."
It is not uncommon in college baseball for a coach to start his ace one day, then bring him back in relief -- or even start him again -- a few days later, and in fact Gwynn did not rule out using Strasburg, a former closer, on Monday should they survive a loser's-bracket game Saturday.
As for the Cavaliers, Charlottesville is just close enough to Washington for anyone who is so inclined, someday down the road, to hop in the car and drive to Nationals Park to point out the famous pitcher who was taken deep one chilly day in May. Might Gosselin find himself in that position one day?
"I'm a Phillies fan," he said. "I hope they knock him around a little."