Stephen Strasburg's competitiveness sets him apart

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; D01

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.

"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."

Added bench coach John McLaren: "He's kind of got this quiet anger. There's a fire inside him, but it's mostly under wraps."

The next-time-up disemboweling of a home run hitter is one of the small joys of watching Strasburg pitch -- not that it occurs very often.

Since 2007, when Strasburg was a freshman closer for San Diego State, Strasburg has allowed a total of only 15 home runs, the most recent of which was Torres's.

Of those 15 batters, two never faced Strasburg again. The other 13? The next time they faced him, they went a combined 1 for 12 (the one hit being a dribbler to second for an infield single) with eight strikeouts and one walk.

"You could see the difference in him," said Ben Carruthers, who, as a senior second baseman for Texas Christian University, homered off Strasburg on March 27, 2009, Strasburg's final year at San Diego State. "After my homer, he struck out seven of the next nine batters. He was just burying that slider. And when I got up again, he threw me three straight fastballs -- 100 miles per hour, each of them. And I missed all three. I've never seen anything like it."

Hype battles humility

The run-up to the All-Star Game earlier this month pitted the two sides of Strasburg against each other. As talk arose of the possibility he could be selected for the National League team, his competitive side was intrigued by the challenge of facing some of the best hitters in the world.

But that side of him was overwhelmed by the humble side. Strasburg, according to one person who talked to him about it, was "mortified" at the thought of earning an all-star slot at the expense of one of his teammates, or even a veteran from another team.

When Strasburg was ultimately left off the team, he admitted to the media that it would have been a "tough decision" whether to accept the invitation had it been extended. But the person who spoke to him about it beforehand said the decision had already been made: "He wouldn't have gone. He just didn't think he deserved it."

Instead of going to Anaheim, Calif., for the All-Star Game, he and wife Rachel, his former college sweetheart, spent the break just south of there, in their native San Diego, hanging out with friends and family members. Strasburg also paid a visit to the San Diego State campus, where he met with his old college adviser about resuming his studies this winter to finish his degree -- something Rachel will also start doing next month.

Strasburg's lack of a sense of entitlement continues to be a revelation, and a pleasant surprise, to those just getting to know him in Washington. Harolyn Cardozo, the executive assistant to the general manager and the person charged with handling the dozens of invitations Strasburg has received for speaking engagements, personal appearances, charity events and honorary awards, says Strasburg -- who is turning down all such requests this year to focus on baseball -- is very specific about how he wants his response to be conveyed.

"He's very concerned," Cardozo said, "that every request be appropriately acknowledged and his appreciation extended."

Strasburg's fan mail now fills about eight large U.S. mail crates in a room off the Nationals' clubhouse, and he continues to draw the fascination of opposing players.

As he warmed up on the Nationals Park mound just prior to his start against the Chicago White Sox on June 18 -- the game attended by President Obama -- veteran White Sox shortstop Omar Vizquel leaned against the railing of his dugout, using a personal camcorder to document the moment. At Camden Yards, Orioles third baseman Miguel Tejada asked Strasburg to pose for a photo with himself and his son.

In an attempt to prevent the spectacle of a stream of clubhouse attendants constantly bringing Strasburg items from the opposing clubhouse for him to sign, the Nationals have instructed the attendants to gather all the items prior to the final game of each series, and bring them to Strasburg all at once. In a typical series, Strasburg will sign about two dozen balls, and assorted other items, for those opposing players.

And all the while, Strasburg wonders whether this sort of hype and fascination is a permanent situation, or a passing fad.

"I think he's kind of sick of the hype and everything," said Heath Bell, the San Diego Padres' all-star closer, who spoke to Strasburg when the Padres were in Washington. "I think he really enjoys being on the field, because when you're on the playing field, there's no hype, there's no nothing.

"But I think he'll really enjoy baseball again in another year or two, because all the hype will die down, and he'll learn how to just be himself."

An overpowering intensity

The people closest to Strasburg have seen his intensity come out in other ways.

At his wedding to Rachel in January, the pastor spoke of how he asked both bride and groom -- separately, in the days before the wedding -- to describe the other in just one word. Stephen failed the exercise miserably, the pastor said, gushing effusively about Rachel's many wonderful attributes and saying he couldn't pick just one.

But Rachel didn't hesitate when asked to describe Stephen: "Intense," she said. When the pastor asked why, she said: "Everything he does, he does intensely. When he plays baseball, he plays intensely. When he loves you, he loves you intensely."

He wasn't always this way. As a Little Leaguer and a young high schooler, Strasburg's intensity was most likely to manifest itself in a tantrum on the mound. The word most often used to describe him in those days was "soft." Soft body (he pushed 250 pounds by the end of high school). Soft mental game.

"Looking back, the things that held him back were basically his body, his workout habits, which were minimal, and his eating habits, which were fair at best," said Tom Battista, a California-based scout for the Boston Red Sox who was the first scout to show interest in Strasburg, in 2005. "He'd come to [the field] with a McDonald's bag full of Egg McMuffins. He lacked confidence, and he lacked the early maturity we usually see."

Still, Battista, who worked for the Atlanta Braves at the time, thought enough of Strasburg's big body, big hands and decent (86-88 mph) fastball to put him on a Braves "scout" team made up of area prospects -- including another San Diego County kid named Mike Leake, a smallish, cocky right-hander who this year became the first rookie pitcher in 21 years to go straight to the major leagues without spending time in the minors.

"He was just immature at the time," Leake said of Strasburg. "Everybody saw it."

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.

"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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