NOTE: This column was written for DugoutCentral.com.
With the MLB draft fast approaching, I took a trip down to San Diego in March to take a look at Stephen Strasburg, the projected number one overall pick. Here's what transpired...
Last Friday, March 20, I got my first glimpse at the Next Big Thing that will soon be hitting the major leagues. I squinted my eyes and snuck a peek at brilliance. I kicked back and marveled at utter domination.
To be clear, bodies aren’t supposed to be this physical, arms aren’t supposed to throw these kinds of fastballs. And we are talking about a college kid, here.
I loaded up the car around 2:30 PM, hit the I-5 south, and rode that baby all the way down to San Diego to see Stephen Strasburg pitch. The right-handed pitcher is a junior at San Diego State and is everybody’s preference for the number one overall selection in the June draft.
People throughout baseball circles are all ready trying to explain why the Washington Nationals, the holder of the first pick, should not take Strasburg.
That’s what scouts do when a prospect is so spectacular. They try to look for reasons why they don’t like him. But they have nothing on Strasburg. It’s impossible.
The San Diego State Aztecs were playing the Cougars of Brigham Young University, but you couldn’t tell as you approached Tony Gwynn Stadium, conveniently placed in the heart of the SDSU campus.
This was Strasburg against BYU. Don’t tell me about his teammates because nobody wanted to hear about them on this night. This wasn’t a Mountain West Conference game, this was an experience. This was a national jewel tucked away in the San Diego cliffs. It’s the perfect setting for Strasburg.
Majestic settings deserve majestic outcomes.
The community gets up for Strasburg on Friday nights. A town more known for surfing isn’t laid back when No. 37 is taking the hill. The atmosphere was electric and you could sense something unusual.
The fans, students, and faculty treat Strasburg’s starts like celebrations, and why not? It would be a travesty not to play it up, and luckily for those in attendance, San Diego simply knows how to party.
Not even one hundred feet outside of the gates was a massive tailgate—approximately 1,000 people—strictly for Strasburg.
I’m not talking about a handful of dads and their buddies pre-gaming with some ballpark franks and Diet Cokes. I’m talking about a festival, a scene you would expect on Sundays before Chargers games.
It was a mix between a Poison concert, Mardi Gras, and a Bobby Flay cookout.
A makeshift gate roped off a boundary that stretched from the back of the end zone to the 30-yard line on the football practice field. Tents were propped up on the outskirts of the lot providing cover for sizzling grills and buffet lines.
Ice buckets held frosty beverages—any selection from (Mountain) Dew to brew. Kids played ‘pickle’ and San Diego State’s finest, donning cut off shirts with ‘37’ on the back, handed out Strasburg t-shirts. A full forty yards of happiness.
Everything was a notch up for this night. Is everything this fun in San Diego? Is everybody this friendly and this welcoming? Is it always like this? If this is indeed true then, fellas, follow me. I’ll show you heaven on Earth.
Most ballparks don’t let you bring any type of food or drink into the game. Even sealed bottles are ordered to the trash. But, of course, I’m not buying a $5 dollar bottle of water and a $2 bag of seeds, so my pant pockets are stuffed.
Water bottles in the back pockets, two bags of seeds in the front left pocket, wallet, keys, and gum in the front right. My lower body looks like the Michelin man.
But what does the lovely 50-something-year old lady do to me at the gate? Nothing. Any open bottles, sir? “No, umm, nothing open,” I said. Great, well then you enjoy the game now!
Not a pat down, not a “what’s in that pocket,” nothing. Just a simple “enjoy the game now!” I’m telling you, everybody was on their best behavior for this night. That was the unequivocal feeling throughout the entire night.
We’ve all been to electric sporting events before, or at the least, we have seen some pretty epic environments on TV. We know that “buzz” that accompanies greatness. That nostalgic feeling of great October baseball games was present as the teams were taking pre-game infield practice and Strasburg sauntered down to the left field corner to stretch out and warm up.
That feeling has no business being at a college baseball game, but there it was.
Strasburg took a light jog to the center field fence, placed his hands on the wall, stretched out his legs, and stood there. He stood there zooming in towards home plate, as if he were checking out his setting for the night.
He gazed over the BYU dugout, seeing the next feeble lineup that would soon be his. He stood on the warning track, lightly wiggling his legs and arms, almost like he was stalking the diamond.
After playing catch, he headed into the home bullpen on the third base side and started heating up. I stood fifteen feet from him, only to hear his pitches hiss into the glove. There were a handful of scouts mesmerized as he stood on the rubber pumping four-seam fastballs into the mitt.
Strasburg finished his warm up tosses and calmly walked into the dugout for a quick sip of water. He gathered up with the rest of the Aztecs before taking the field to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, slowly hopping over the foul line as his teammates sprinted.
It’s hard to say what is most impressive about Strasburg, although his performance was nothing short of dominant. Strasburg made Division 1 hitters look like a high school junior varsity team. He was throwing fastballs in fastball counts and blowing them by the BYU hitters. We are talking 2-0, 3-1 counts. Counts where you are looking dead red.
Strasburg struck out the side in the first inning. He jogged off the mound like he does that all the time; I believe him. He struck out seven of the first nine hitters. His final line was nearly impeccable: 7 innings, 0 runs, 2 hits, 1 walk, 15 strikeouts. He did it like there was nothing to it.
I sat in the first row over the San Diego State dugout, and Strasburg looked like a train from that close. Phil Nevin sat next to me in amazement. What was more telling than anything was the reaction of the crowd and Strasburg’s teammates. Everyone was giddy. His teammates hung over the dugout railing, clinging to his every pitch.
They actually looked like they knew they would never witness anything like this again in their lives.
The crowd cheered and clapped for every two-strike count, begging for the strikeout. The ‘K’ is a drug when Strasburg is on the hill. Scott Boras sat behind the plate drooling over the amount of money he could possibly get his new client come June.
Two of his executives accompanied him with a radar gun and notes. According to Boras’ gun, Strasburg’s fastball sat at 97-99 mph, and topped out at 101.
He lives off of his fastball and slider, which acts more like a curveball. It’s a hammer with sharp, late break, the kind of pitch gives you wide eyes and wobbles upon release. The fastball/slider combo is far too much for any college team to handle.
The hitters were guessing at the plate, although when they guess fastball they had some semblance of a chance to put the bat on the ball, but not much.
Strasburg has a change up which he only showed during the game, mainly because he just doesn’t need it. I got a good look at it when he was warming up in the pen, and it is a solid pitch.
His short stint in the minor leagues will be to develop that pitch for the left-handed hitters in the big leagues. Once he comes along with that, he will be as dominant as they come.
The outing was everything that I came to see, but what the scouts wanted to see happened in the sixth inning. Strasburg struck out the first guy on four pitches, not wasting any time. Then this mammoth left-handed hitter came up to the plate and Strasburg delivered.
Fastball, outside corner. Ball 1. Fastball, outside corner. Ball 2. Fastball, inside corner. Ball 3. Fastball, outside corner. Walk.
Strasburg painted four straight fastballs and the umpire gave him none of them. You could see Strasburg mumble under his breath, a little agitated after being squeezed, before he swiped the ball back.
The next hitter guessed fastball and started his swing before he even got to the plate, and dumped the first pitching into right field, putting runners on the corners with 1 out and San Diego State ahead 2-0.
This is exactly what the scouts came for. They wanted a jam. They wanted to see what Strasburg would do about some adversity. Strasburg backed up third base on the base hit, and once the ball was in the infield, he stopped.
He glared toward home plate, took a deep breath, and let out a grunt that could be heard from the stands. He slowly walked back up the mound as his shoulders scaled back some more with every step.
It was as if Strasburg decided right then and there, that there wouldn’t be any more contact in that inning and nobody was going to score. Of course, Strasburg struck out the next hitter on three straight sliders, before striking out the next hitter on three straight fastballs. No chance.
It was that moment, as he walked off the mound staring back at home plate, with the BYU hitters staring back and the BYU fans staring stunned, that I realized the most impressive thing about Strasburg. He looks like he belongs in the big leagues.
He acts like he belongs in the big leagues. The presence, the swagger, the confidence, put it all together and it is overwhelmingly tantalizing. He has an aura about him that he knows he is the best player on the field, but he doesn’t need to say anything to prove it.
You literally feel something special about watching him move around the field and pitch, and you have no idea why. Until that one moment late in the game when he physically takes himself above the competition and decides that he won’t lose.
For other players it’s luck, but for him it’s merely a decision. A switch. He commands the attention of the ballpark for his entire outing. You can’t stare at him enough. When he is standing on the rubber, you don’t get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink. You have to watch. Life stops for his half of the inning.
He brings an intimidation to the mound that is unparalleled. Nolan Ryan had the same effect. Roger Clemens was terrifying, but he was more animated. Combine Strasburg’s arsenal and his body language, and it is nothing short of creepy. He is stone-faced but confident.
After five innings, my buddy who came to the game with me leaned over and said, “God, I just want to know what he is thinking one time, just one time show me something.” But Strasburg wouldn’t. He is relentless, and that is part of what makes him so great and so chilling to watch.
Up above the right field fence at San Diego State is a huge wall commemorating the SDSU baseball Hall of Fame. At the bottom of that wall is a rail.
That rail acts as Strasburg’s Strikeout Meter; a new ‘K’ is hung on the rail after each batter he fans. While fifteen strikeouts were being put up on the railing, you couldn’t help but glaze over the Hall of Fame. Tony Gwynn. Mark Grace. Bud Black.
To the far right, one panel remains empty. Call it an omen, call it a coincidence, call it whatever you want. But there is something special happening on Friday nights at Tony Gwynn Stadium, something that college baseball may not see again for a very long time.
San Diego is stopping to take part in it, and it would be a shame if we let this career pass on by without getting our fix.
Strasburg will soon be off to bigger things, but his legacy will always remain intact at SDSU. It’s only a matter of time before that Hall of Fame has a new inductee and that lonely panel has its first name.
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at email@example.com.