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A Star Is Born, Part IV

Stephen Strasburg's competitiveness sets him apart

"He comes in as a soft-spoken guy, but when he gets on the mound he's got the eyes of steel, and he's focused in," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said of rookie Stephen Strasburg.
"He comes in as a soft-spoken guy, but when he gets on the mound he's got the eyes of steel, and he's focused in," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said of rookie Stephen Strasburg. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010

The moment was easy to miss -- so easy, in fact, that half the teammates and coaches in Stephen Strasburg's own dugout missed it. But Steve McCatty saw the whole thing. As Strasburg stalked off the mound following the top of the third inning against the San Francisco Giants on July 9, McCatty, the Washington Nationals' pitching coach, suddenly elbowed Manager Jim Riggleman in the ribs.

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"Look!" McCatty said, pointing at Strasburg -- who, as he came toward the Nationals' dugout, was staring down his latest strikeout victim, Giants center fielder Andres Torres, and muttering something under his breath. "He's talking [smack]!"

McCatty, himself a former big league pitcher who wasn't above some snarling [smack]-talking in his day, talks about the moment now like a proud father who didn't know his boy had it in him.

"It was awesome," he says. "I was almost laughing."

And what do you suppose it was that Strasburg said in the general direction of Torres?

"I don't know. I couldn't make it out," McCatty said. "Probably, 'Take that, [expletive].' "

To Strasburg's coaches and teammates, who knew all about the phenom's immense physical tools -- the 100-mph heat and the knee-buckling curve and the fall-off-the-table change-up -- before he ever showed up in their clubhouse this spring, his competitive edge has been perhaps the biggest revelation this season.

What had Torres done to incur Strasburg's wrath? He merely had the audacity to hit a homer off Strasburg two innings prior, leading off the game. Torres didn't pose after his swing, or hot-dog it around the bases, or celebrate excessively afterwards. All he did was hit the ball and run.

"I was told [before Strasburg arrived] that he's got a little edge to him," Riggleman said. "He doesn't like hitters taking liberties in there. I think he's been very respectful to the opposition and respectful to umpires, but at certain times he's had that look on his face like, 'I'm not happy with what's happening here, and someone's going to pay.' Not in terms of throwing at guys, but in terms of, 'I'm going to dial it up here.' "

Strasburg's stare down was noted in the Giants' dugout, as well. "Yeah, I saw it," ace Tim Lincecum said the following week at the All-Star Game. "He stared [Torres] down and said something to him." Asked what the Giants made of the display, Lincecum smiled and cocked his head, as if to say, "You'll see." The Giants and Nationals don't play each other again this season.

Strasburg's feisty mound persona -- which revealed itself again last Wednesday night in Cincinnati, when he shouted down a heckler by yelling, "Scoreboard!" -- is even more pronounced when contrasted with his off-the-field one. In the Nationals' clubhouse and beyond, the 22-year-old rookie is reserved, shy and humble, rarely speaking unless spoken to. It is only when he gets on the field that he transforms.

"I call him the 'Silent Assassin,' " said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo. "He comes in as a soft-spoken guy, but when he gets on the mound he's got the eyes of steel, and he's focused in, and he's a tough nut on the mound."


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