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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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Battista tried to light a fire under Strasburg by dropping him lower and lower in the pecking order of the team's pitching staff, which would scrimmage with each pitcher throwing just one inning.

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"I'd tell him we're dropping him down another inning," Battista said, "and he'd just say, 'Okay, coach.' I could never [tick] him off.' "

Neither the Braves, nor any other team, thought enough of Strasburg in the summer of 2006 to draft him out of high school, so Strasburg went to San Diego State to play for Coach Tony Gwynn's Aztecs, and it was there that the remarkable transformation occurred, and Strasburg became the pitcher, the competitor and the young man he is today.

"He didn't have much composure or much confidence in the beginning," Gwynn said. "I had serious questions about whether he was ready for the college game."

The team's strength and conditioning coaches and some upperclassmen on the team put the freshman Strasburg through a military-style boot camp, making him run until he literally threw up and teaching him about nutrition, weight-lifting and yoga. When Battista encountered Strasburg again toward the end of that year, the kid lifted up his shift and said, "Look, coach. I have abs now!"

Strasburg was also tested on the mound, as the Aztecs used him at first as a middle reliever, then gradually put him into higher-leverage situations. By the end of his freshman year, with his weight in the 220s and his fastball in the upper 90s, he was their closer.

"We put him in every hot box we could," said Rusty Filter, Strasburg's pitching coach at San Diego State. "He really thrived on that."

It was around this time that teammates began to notice Strasburg's "higher gear," which he would reach for -- instead of melting down -- when something didn't sit well with him, such as when some batter "squared up" his heater. Midway through his freshman year, he lost a game at Utah when a junior catcher named Jesse Shriner singled home the go-ahead run in the bottom of the ninth.

Strasburg didn't forget. The next time he faced Shriner, a year later -- when Strasburg, now a sophomore, was in the Aztecs' rotation -- he struck him out four times. That, in fact, was the famed 23-strikeout game, the one that shot Strasburg to the top of every top draft-prospect list in baseball and turned him into an amateur phenomenon.

At the end of the eighth inning of that game, with Strasburg already having thrown 118 pitches and compiled 21 strikeouts, Gwynn and Filter discussed pulling him from the game. But before they could decide, Strasburg, the same kid who owned not a shred of confidence when he arrived two years earlier, strode past them and blurted, "I'm not coming out."

Indeed, it is when Strasburg pitches with a chip on his shoulder that he is at his best. Witness the already-legendary June 8 debut against the Pirates. Strasburg's performance that night turned on the solo home run by Pirates right fielder Delwyn Young in the fourth inning. He faced 10 batters after that. Eight of them struck out -- including Young, who had no chance against fastballs of 98, 98 and 99 mph.

"If you could design a pitcher with all the things you'd want, he has them all," McCatty said. "That competitive fire is like the final piece. On top of everything else he has, it just pushes him over the top."

Because of a near-miss alignment of pitching rotations last week, the world was robbed of an opportunity to see something epic: Strasburg going after one of his nemeses, Leake, his former Little League and scout team teammate, who pitched one day before Strasburg when the Nationals visited Cincinnati.

In early June, just days before Strasburg would make his extraordinary big league debut, a story about Leake appeared in USA Today, in which Leake recalled playing alongside Strasburg as kids, and said, "He was overweight, pouty and used to cry." Leake further mused that it would be "a nice little competition" to face Strasburg in the majors.

Back in San Diego, Erik Castro, Strasburg's catcher at SDSU and the best man at his wedding, read the story and -- knowing how it would make Strasburg burn -- immediately called him to see if he had seen it. Strasburg had seen it, all right. And he was steaming.

Leake was officially on The List.

"It really fired him up," Castro said. "I was the first person to talk to him about it. He got so fired up. He wants to pitch against [Leake]. He said some other things that aren't appropriate to put in a newspaper. But he definitely wants a piece of that kid."


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