- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

FORT WORTH, Texas

It began with a couple of steps off the pitching rubber, just a quick break to stretch. Then as Stephen Strasburg bent at the waist to stretch his trunk, the shrouded conversations multiplied.

By the time pitching coach Rusty Filter and San Diego State’s training staff trotted out to the mound to check on Strasburg after he issued a four-pitch walk in the eighth inning of the Mountain West Conference quarterfinals last month, the whispers had morphed into full-volume worry.

Strasburg threw one more pitch after the walk and was lifted for closer Addison Reed, and then the news raced out of Texas Christian University’s Lupton Stadium on a current of wireless streams and satellite links. ESPN said Strasburg had strained his oblique muscle; some reports called it a broken rib despite Strasburg’s own assurances he was fine.

But by the next morning, Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn’s cell phone was lighting up - including a call from his brother - wondering whether the nation’s most prized prospect had cracked under the stress of his triple-digit fastball and swooping slider weeks before the combination was to make him rich.

“We got up this morning like, ‘What’s going on?’ I was talking to my Internet guys - ‘Did you guys say oblique? Did you say rib cage?’ And it was, ‘No, Tony! We didn’t say [that]!’ And they just come out of the woodwork,” Gwynn said the morning after the game, his retelling coming out as frantic as the calls came in. “Because again, it’s that expectation. Everybody expects him to be the first pick. Everybody expects him to make millions and millions of dollars. I get it, I get it. But you know what? There isn’t anything I can do about all this stuff. I try to be as honest as I can about what’s going on with it, and the next thing you know, it’s going to be coming out of my mouth that he’s got a cracked rib.”

Later, he sighs, “You just kind of let it go in one ear and out the other.”

There is nothing about Strasburg’s physique - a taut, 6-foot-5 frame, wiry arms and chiseled torso - that suggests he should be treated like a piece of fine china.

But whether it’s the too-good-to-believe stuff, the quick transformation from an overweight college freshman to a physically impressive junior or the litany of power pitchers who have broken down before him, there’s a fretfulness that the presumptive No. 1 pick is going to be baseball’s version of Halley’s Comet - breathtaking to watch but gone too soon and not coming back for decades.

It hasn’t been because of San Diego State’s handling of the 20-year-old. Gwynn and pitching coach Filter have vigilantly guarded Strasburg’s pitch counts the last two years, hewing to a limit of about 115 a start and refusing to hinge their whole season on Strasburg’s arm.

With Strasburg scheduled to throw 35 to 40 pitches on the side anyway and an automatic NCAA tournament berth on the line in the May 23 Mountain West Conference final, the Aztecs sat Strasburg - and lost.

“It’s a tough position to be in, but as a coach, it’s my responsibility to handle these guys the right way,” Gwynn said.

It’s also not because of Strasburg’s mechanics. Though several Internet sites have used super-slow-motion video to point out trouble spots in his delivery, both Filter and a Nationals executive said his approach to the plate raises no red flags.

No, the fear comes from the graveyard of big-time pitching prospects, including the two most chilling names to whom Strasburg has drawn comparisons - Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

“It’s part of being a pitcher,” Strasburg said. “Whether or not you’re sore, it’s your responsibility to keep the team in the ballgame.”

Frame, fitness bring power

The term “buzz” is thrown around so frequently it’s almost a cliche. When Strasburg pitches, it’s audible - a murmur of excitement every time his fastball strains for triple digits, a stream of disparate yet seemingly intertwined conversations in the concourses about where he’s going or what he’ll do next.

When Gwynn or Filter happen upon a newcomer to the Strasburg legend, the first thing they ask is “Have you seen him pitch?” They talk about it as if it’s a thrill ride meant to be experienced firsthand.

Strasburg’s four-seam fastball is the big-ticket item. It leaves his hand with a sinister hiss, building as it races toward a finishing thump in catcher Erik Castro’s glove. He also has a two-seamer that tops out in the mid-90s and a change-up that hovers in the low 80s - or about 20 mph slower than his best fastball.

The slyer, more sublime pitch for most Strasburg observers, though, is his slider-curve hybrid, which banks away from right-handed hitters before dropping sharply as it reaches the plate.

“It’s not truly a slider, but it’s not truly a curveball. It’s got three planes. It’s got tilt like a slider, but it doesn’t have the velocity,” Filter said. “It’s kind of in between. I don’t know what you call it. After you see it, you can name it whatever you want.”

Strasburg has always had the size and the wingspan to throw hard. He was crossing 90 mph on radar guns in high school but was lightly recruited because he was chubby and out of shape. Once Filter and Aztecs strength coach Dave Ohton got to Strasburg and convinced him he needed to take his physique more seriously, the velocity gradually rose, so much so that Strasburg said he wasn’t shocked when he first hit 100 mph in a fall intrasquad game his sophomore year.

“I came in, and they said, ‘You hit 100 on the gun,’ ” Strasburg said. “I’d been at 97-98 over the summer. I wasn’t trying to think 100. It was all about getting better.”

Strasburg’s arms and fingers are so long, his delivery so smooth, it’s tough to believe he’s throwing as hard as he is. He has honed his body through Bikram yoga classes and a stringent fitness routine, which unearthed the potential coaches say Strasburg always had.

“It’s definitely got a good tempo to it. He’s not a max-effort guy,” Filter said. “It’s really clean. The finish is smooth. He’s got a nice stride. He had the base of it coming in [to college]. We didn’t really make a lot of changes mechanically. As he got fitter, he was really able to maximize his potential.”

Coaches still cautious

Asked for a point of comparison, though, Filter said Strasburg reminds him of Wood early in his career - before the Cubs phenom blew out his elbow in spring training a decade ago.

It’s part of the reason the Aztecs have been so cautious with Strasburg, resisting the urge to let him throw 140-pitch games or appear twice in a weekend series.

Gwynn repeatedly says he won’t let Strasburg “leave his arm here” - more a vow than a mantra.

The Padres Hall of Famer said Strasburg is the best 20-year-old he has ever seen, and he understands there’s a lot more to Strasburg’s career than college.

That sense of perspective has won Gwynn praise from Strasburg’s adviser, superagent Scott Boras.

“Tony Gwynn understands both worlds and the professional world very intimately. Because of that, his primary focus has been the best interest of the athletes,” Boras said. “Parents and athletes should take note of what Tony has done for preservation of the athlete’s future, coupled with the benefit and the needs of his college. That balance is difficult. I think Tony stands as a light tower for college coaches to follow.”

The question the rest of this year will be how far the cautious treatment goes. Gwynn said earlier this spring that if he owned the team picking Strasburg, he would sign the pitcher and shut him down for the rest of the year, preferring to keep him fresh for a full season in 2010.

And a Nationals executive said last month the only way Strasburg would pitch in the majors this season is by making one or two appearances, either to showcase the pitcher to fans or fulfill an agreement negotiated with Strasburg and Boras.

The only question is if the team’s attendance languishes through the summer, will the pressure to sell tickets trump patience?

Because as good as Strasburg is, history suggests some perspective is needed.

“The question was asked of me, ‘If it was me, what would I do?’ - like I own the Padres or something,” Gywnn said. “But I totally get the Nationals’ thinking. If they can sign him - because I think the kid wants to sign and wants to play - if they can sign him, they’ve got their own timetable for what they’d like to see happen. But I totally get where they’re coming from, too. They want something to put butts in the seats. I get it. I get it. And you know what? If he gets there, I think he’s going to be fine, however it works out.”

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