That 99 mile-per-hour fastball with English wasn’t always there.
Neither was the slider that buckled knees nor the changeup that made batters flinch.
Stephen Strasburg didn’t always have the cool confidence to take down Major League* hitters.
*OK, OK, those 14 batters he struck out were Pittsburgh Pirates, but still…
He learned those things from San Diego State and largely pitching coach Rusty Filter. Strasburg came to SDSU not as a celebrated future bonus baby, but as a project. As former San Diego Union-Tribune baseball writer Tom Krasovic points out, Filter had to do some lobbying to get Strasburg to Montezuma Mesa from West Hills High School in Santee, not too far east of SDSU.
I remember covering a game during Strasburg’s sophomore year (not one he started), hearing that Strasburg could barely break 90 miles per hour with his fastball in high school, a stark contrast to the triple digit heat he can bring now.
That’s partially why he went to San Diego State and not one of the many baseball hotbed schools in Southern California such as Long Beach State*, Cal State Fullerton, USC, UCLA and the University of San Diego.
*One idiosyncrasy I always loved about CSULB was the fact that while the school’s other teams are called the 49ers, the baseball team is called the Dirtbags.
“Strassy was soft when he got to San Diego State,” said Gwynn (to Krasovic), a former Aztecs baseball and basketball star. “The conditioning coach used to call him Stay Puft Softy. He weighed 250 pounds. First day of conditioning, we ran 200-yard sprints. Strassy puked his guts out.”
The year I covered the San Diego State baseball team, Strasburg was at first a nondescript freshman reliever. Decorated senior starting pitcher Bruce Billings (now in AA-Tulsa, a Colorado Rockies farm team) was slated to open the season as the team’s closer, but head coach Tony Gwynn moved him back to the rotation shortly after the season started. The starting pitching that year was pretty solid, but the bullpen was worrisome. In February, Gwynn began giving Strasburg the ball in the ninth inning. The results weren’t pretty (forgive the egregious spelling error).
SDSU (6-4) had a four-run lead over the Trojans (7-5) going into the ninth inning, but the final frame has been an adventure all year for the Aztecs. Freshman closer du jour Steven Strasberg struggled in the last inning, giving the four runs back to USC.
Still, Gwynn loved his team’s grit after another bullpen breakdown.
“We could have just thrown our hands up in the air and said, ‘Oh well,’ but they didn’t,” Gwynn said. “They scrapped*, and Green found a way to get his hand on home plate.”
Sunday nearly looked like a repeat of the night before. On Saturday, SDSU held a two-run advantage going into the ninth inning. Junior Shane Kaufman (0-2) had pitched a lights-out., 3 1/3 innings in relief, but was running on fumes as the eighth inning came to a close.
Gwynn stuck with Kaufman in the ninth, but his fuel gauge had finally dipped below “E.” After an error by sophomore third baseman Nick Romero, Kaufman gave up back-to-back triples to tie the game at four. Junior Mike Koons relieved Kaufman, but a sac fly gave the lead, and later the win, to USC.
*Tony Gwynn’s all-time favorite word.
The Saturday game also marked the first and only time I got yelled at by Gwynn. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Strasburg was warming up in the bullpen. I could tell in the top of the eighth that Kaufman was done. He was walking around the mound quite a bit, rotating his arm, trying to get it loose. In the ninth inning, both Strasburg and Kaufman jogged toward the mound. Who does Gwynn call back to the dugout? Strasburg. I asked him how much confidence he really had in Kaufman to finish the game, to which he curtly replied, “Well he was out there, wasn’t he!?” Lesson learned.
But as the season drew on, Strasburg improved and those of us in the press box could see the fruits of Filter’s labor. He grew into the ninth inning role, finishing the season with seven saves with a 2.43 earned run average, striking out 47 in 37 innings of work. We could see his fastball had a little more giddyup, and his breaking ball was absolutely filthy. He was going to be something special, but what came in his sophomore year, no one could’ve predicted.
En route to a season where terms like “First-round draft pick,” and “Scott Boras” started floating around, Strasburg struck out 23 of 27 Utah batters who stepped to the plate. A frenzy began. Suddenly, Tony Gwynn wasn’t the only one getting loud cheers at SDSU games. He became the hottest prospect since Marshall Faulk and you know the rest.
Watching Strasburg last night felt like a small victory for a school where athletic success has been fleeting. Although plenty of SDSU players get drafted fairly high (junior pitcher Addison Reed went in round 3 to the White Sox this weekend and junior outfielder Cory Vaughn, the son of Greg and nephew of Mo, went in the fourth round to the Mets.), the Aztecs haven’t had much success in the College World Series tournament, where it really counts.
And it’s refreshing to see that he hasn’t really gotten caught up in the hype. Strasburg seems to have a good head on his shoulders, which have been burdened with the load of saving a moribund Washington Nationals franchise. The former Stay Puft Softy is up to the challenge.