Fireballer Strasburg a Big Hit for Gwynn's Aztecs

The buzz surrounding Stephen Strasburg seems to grow with every pitch, which makes sense considering that some of his electrifying fastballs have hit triple digits on the radar gun.

The big San Diego State right-hander already has an Olympic bronze medal and a 23-strikeout game among his career highlights -- every strike of that gem is on YouTube for the whole world to see, including the final one when he hops off the mound, pumps his fist and hugs his catcher.

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If he stays healthy and has a big junior season, Strasburg is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the June amateur draft.

Before the millions of dollars come rolling in, though, Strasburg would really like to help get Tony Gwynn's Aztecs into the NCAA regionals for the first time in 18 years.

"I have a full year left here, at least, and I definitely want to make an impact," Strasburg said.

He already has, becoming a big name as quickly as one his fastballs reaches home plate.

Strasburg first gained national attention last April 11 when he had 23 strikeouts in a 1-0, one-hit victory against Utah. The 23 whiffs set school and Mountain West Conference records, and tied for the third-highest total in NCAA history.

In Beijing, he was the only amateur on the U.S. Olympic team.

In September, he was the focus of the "Strasburg Sweepstakes," in which being worst meant being first. By losing 102 games, the Washington Nationals earned the first pick in the draft over the Seattle Mariners (101 losses) and the San Diego Padres (99).

"I don't see him getting past one," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "I think the Mariners will be doing handsprings if he got there at two, and we'd be jumping off the La Jolla cliffs if he was there at three.

"I haven't seen the rest of the country but I find it hard to believe that there's a higher-profile pitcher -- and player -- out there for this year's draft than him," Towers said.

Gwynn, who's entering his seventh season at his alma mater, calls Strasburg an overpowering pitcher "with really kind of freakish talent. But he has a level head about him."

"No question we're lucky to have a guy like Strasy," he said.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strasburg has been named a preseason All-American and the preseason national pitcher of the year by several publications and Web sites. He tops the list of candidates for the Golden Spikes Award and the Brooks Wallace Award.

A local kid who grew up in suburban Santee and idolized Gwynn, Trevor Hoffman, Jake Peavy and other Padre stars, Strasburg just wants to be known as the Aztecs' ace. He was scheduled to start the season opener Friday against Bethune-Cookman in the MLB Urban Classic in Compton.

"I've grown up so much just from three years ago, being at West Hills High School," Strasburg said on a recent Saturday morning at Tony Gwynn Stadium. "I really can't explain what happened. I got thrown into the fire here, I did everything that the coaches told me to do, and I tried to do more than that. It's just worked out so far."

Strasburg was undrafted out of high school. He wanted to pitch for Stanford but wasn't accepted. Although SDSU recruited Strasburg, Gwynn admits that he didn't think the pitcher was tough enough mentally for college ball. Plus, he was overweight. Pitching coach Rusty Filter, however, was high on Strasburg.

The righty got into shape and his fastball went from 91 mph to being consistently around 97 mph or more. He was the closer his freshman year and a starter last year, going 8-3 with a 1.57 ERA.

Gwynn said Strasburg has often pitched with 25 to 30 scouts in the stands.

Although Strasburg has matured, he sometimes has his moments.

"I really believe there are times he goes out on the mound and he just doesn't expect to be hit," said Gwynn, who had a .338 average and 3,141 hits in 20 seasons with the Padres. "And when he does get hit, sometimes his emotions start to come out. Again, you just try to teach him about composure and focusing in on the next hitter and that stuff, and for the most part he's been unbelievable."

During a scrimmage a few weeks ago, one of Strasburg's fastballs reportedly was clocked at 103 and two others at 101.

In all his years of scouting, Towers said he's never seen a pitcher with the velocity and command that Strasburg has.

"What comes out of the hand is just electric, and it's moving," the GM said. "That's the amazing thing with him. I've seen guys throw 96, 97, but it's true. This guy's ball sails, it cuts, it sinks at times. It's hard to believe somebody could throw triple digits and get movement. And his movement is around the plate. It's not way up here or way over here.

Gwynn doesn't put a whole lot of credence in radar guns. He says SDSU's gun tops out at 99 mph. "He's always at 99," the coach said.

Strasburg, who's being advised by agent Scott Boras, doesn't care, either.

"If my fastball feels like it's coming out pretty good and I'm able to locate it, then it doesn't really matter, as long as it's getting the results I want," he said.

Strasburg also throws what Towers calls a "wipeout slider," as well as a better-than-average changeup and a cutter.

SDSU has never been to the College World Series. It hasn't been to an NCAA regional since 1991, and Strasburg -- whose parents are Aztec alums -- would love to end that drought.

"It's a very big goal because I know that there's a lot of good players who have come out of this program but they haven't really had anything to show for it while they were here," he said. "Just for me, that's my No. 1 goal. I know how good this program can be and I now how hard the coaches work and how good the coaches are."

Gwynn said Strasburg is focused on SDSU -- and vice versa. The school has a ticket package called the "Strasburg Plan," which includes five games with the ace as the projected starter.

"There's no question as a program we're going to ride his coattail, the university is going to ride his coattail, and all the attention that he's getting, I think is warranted," Gwynn said.

"But in order for us to be successful, we're going to need more than him," said Gwynn, mindful that his Aztecs will have to win the Mountain West Conference tournament to get a regional bid. "All the talk and stuff is great. We still have to try to figure out ways to win games that he doesn't pitch."

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