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Strasburg's hot stuff creates some interesting dilemmasBy Tim Sullivan (Contact) Union-Tribune Columnist2:00 a.m. February 28, 2009Stephen Strasburg said he was trying to pitch “to contact,” to lean on his defense, to limit his pitch count.At this, Strasburg was awful. It's a good thing, then, that he is so great.San Diego State's overpowering right-hander strives for baseball efficiency from beneath a burden of electric stuff. He throws a 100 mph fastball and a curve so sharp it could slice pineapples. He might try to keep his fielders involved, but this fellow pitches to contact as if he were flinging pebbles while the hitters were swinging spaghetti strands.“He's a freak,” Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn said, in summary. “He's trying to keep the ball down and let them put it in play. But when you've got overpowering stuff like that and it's down in the zone, he's a tough guy to square up.”This was a few minutes after Strasburg struck out 16 hitters across 6 2/3 innings in Thursday night's 5-2 victory against Nevada, just after Gwynn stopped giggling about the notion of his ace pitching “to contact.” Not only had Strasburg recorded 16 out of 20 possible outs by strikeout, but he retired more hitters on swinging strikes (11) than he permitted balls to be put in play (9).As Tim McCarver said of Steve Carlton, the batter barely exists for Stephen Strasburg. He's playing, as McCarver called it, “an elevated game of catch.”“I really go out there with the mentality that guys shouldn't hit me,” Strasburg said. “I know it's a part of the game and I really look forward to when guys square me up and they put me in that crucial situation.“I just want to see if I can get out of it, you know, make a quality pitch to get a ground-ball double play or punch a guy out in a big spot. That's what I look forward to.”Otherwise, where's the challenge? Two starts into his junior year, Strasburg's college record reflects sustained dominance: 207 strikeouts in 146 2/3 innings against only 87 hits allowed. The lone collegian to crack the U.S. Olympic baseball team last summer, Strasburg has emerged as the clear favorite for Washington's first overall selection in baseball's amateur draft in June.He is not pitching to contact so much as he is pitching to contract, toward a deal that figures to be worth $8 million or more. Much as big-league ballclubs appreciate the ability to induce ground balls, they rarely lavish that kind of loot on an amateur pitcher unless he shows the ability to miss bats.This is where Stephen Strasburg excels, and why roughly 20 major-league scouts huddled behind home plate with their notebooks and radar guns Thursday night at Tony Gwynn Stadium. What they witnessed was a pitcher who is more advanced than the guy who finished second nationally in strikeouts last season, a guy who was clocked as high as 102 mph without corresponding wildness.Granted, Nevada was overmatched. Still, Strasburg was stunning. En route to a sixth-inning strikeout, Nevada shortstop Kevin Rodland flailed at a first-pitch Strasburg fastball and might have missed it by a foot. Thus chastened, Rodland showed bunt on the next pitch.“It happens a lot,” Gwynn said. “You get a guy who's overpowering like (Strasburg) and guys go up there with the intent of hitting the first fastball they see. Then, a lot of times, it's got so much giddy-up on it, he gets it by 'em, and they immediately have to try to change their game plan a little bit.“He's not just throwing it down the middle and saying, 'Hey, I'm going to overpower you.' He's trying to pitch.”Aztecs catcher Erik Castro, who was also behind the plate for Strasburg's 23-strikeout game last year, says the pitcher has expanded his repertoire with a sinking fastball. Gwynn says Strasburg's breaking ball shows a tighter spin and more “tilt” than it had in 2008.The scouts are salivating. One major league scouting director confirmed yesterday that no pitcher on his draft board throws as hard as Strasburg.Gwynn's challenge, then, is two-fold: to tap Strasburg's full potential without compromising his career. There will be games in which Gwynn will be forced to choose between protecting a lead and protecting his pitcher. Thursday, he stopped Strasburg after 112 pitches, with the Aztecs in need of seven more outs.“We're trying to win the game,” Gwynn said. “That's first and foremost. Second, he's not going to leave his arm here (at San Diego State). We kind of had the same dilemma last week in Compton when he was at 5 1/3 (innings), coming up on 100 pitches. Hey, somebody else has got to pick him up.”Though relievers Kegan Sharp and Addison Reed were able to close out Nevada Thursday night, Strasburg's goal is to depend more on his defense and less on his bullpen, to go deeper in games by getting more outs on batted balls.His problem is that it's hard to pitch to contact when the other team can't touch you.
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