- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

PHOENIX

The first thing everyone notices about Stephen Strasburg is the fastball. Really, it’s not even fair to call it a simple fastball, as though it were some 92 mph four-seamer coming out of the hand of Joe Blanton or Jeff Suppan. No, this is a high-and-tight heater that regularly reaches triple digits, yet emerges from Strasburg’s right arm so effortlessly that batters don’t realize its lethality until it’s too late.

The next thing everyone notices about Strasburg is the breaking ball. It’s a slider. Or maybe a curveball. Perhaps it’s a hybrid of the two, a “slurve.” Whatever it is, it’s devastating, a power off-speed pitch that darts down and away from right-handed batters and when thrown properly is an even better pitch than his fastball.

Strasburg’s change-up isn’t half-bad either. He doesn’t use it much, but when he does, it’s a quality major league pitch that might be thrown harder than some guys’ fastball. Yet it’s a good 10 mph slower than his heater.

Needless to say, the top prospect in the Washington Nationals’ farm system - and perhaps in all of baseball - has the stuff to be a dominant big leaguer.

But there’s another aspect of Strasburg’s game, something that becomes evident about the 21-year-old once the wow factor of his repertoire wears off. The kid knows how to pitch. And what he doesn’t know yet, he wants to learn.

It’s one thing to have the golden arm. It’s another to understand how to use it. And as those who have been watching Strasburg for the past month in the Arizona Fall League have come to realize, his brain might be an even stronger weapon than his arm.

“He’s just got a tremendous awareness of how to make adjustments,” said Gary Cathcart, manager of the Phoenix Desert Dogs and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Class AA club. “He’s a real student. He pays attention. I’m as impressed with all the other stuff, if not more so, than the physical ability.”

Strasburg’s performance in the AFL suggests he already has the mental side of pitching down, even though he still hasn’t appeared in a regular-season minor league game. In five starts with the Desert Dogs, he’s 4-1 with a 4.26 ERA. Throw out his one subpar outing - more on that in a moment - and he’s been downright unstoppable, going 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA and allowing only 14 men to reach base in 16 1/3 innings.

Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in this summer’s draft, is doing this not against fellow first-time pros but rather against the top upper-level prospects in baseball. AFL rosters are loaded with premier Class AA and Class AAA talent, guys on the verge of the big leagues.

Which is why he understands his mental approach to pitching at this level is just as important as his physical gifts.

“That’s the thing,” Strasburg said. “All these guys have seen ‘plus’ fastballs. They’ve seen plus breaking balls. They’ve seen good change-ups. Here, you have to go out there and actually pitch. Because if you’re just out there throwing fastballs 95-plus right down the middle, sooner or later they’re going to hit it a long way.”

They did hit it a long way Oct. 22, Strasburg’s lone rough outing of the AFL season and really his lone substandard appearance in years. Facing the Peoria Javelinas, he was tagged for eight runs (seven earned) and seven hits in 2 2/3 innings. Three Javelinas players hit home runs, the only homers he has allowed in a league known for inflated offense.

The Strasburg detractors, those who want to see the richest and most hyped draft pick in baseball history fail, got their wish. And fans at the Peoria Sports Complex let the right-hander hear it with catcalls and snide remarks.

But as the rest of that loss played out, and after it was over, Strasburg displayed uncommon poise and maturity.

“He didn’t waver,” Cathcart said. “He didn’t change his emotions. He kept going.”

He also wasted no time trying to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again. Strasburg talked to anyone and everyone who could offer advice. His teammates. His pitching coach with the Desert Dogs. His former pitching coach from San Diego State.

“He didn’t panic,” said fellow Nationals prospect and AFL teammate Drew Storen. “He just stepped back and evaluated the outing and looked at what he did and looked at what he needed to do next time. He’s a very cerebral guy.”

Those close to Strasburg came away more impressed with him in the wake of defeat than in victory, surprised by the novice professional’s advanced understanding of the sport.

“His questions are pretty high-level questions,” said Paul Menhart, pitching coach for the Desert Dogs and the Nationals’ Class A Potomac team. “It’s a joy to talk to him. He wants to learn so much so quickly. He’s a sponge. He wants it all, and he wants it now.”

When Strasburg returned to the mound five days later, it was immediately obvious he had made the necessary adjustments. Against the Surprise Rafters, he carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning.

Speaking later that afternoon about the lessons he learned from his previous start, Strasburg almost sounded happy to have endured that pounding.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I strongly feel that the games where you don’t pitch well are the best games you can learn from.”

Since then, Strasburg has been nothing short of dynamic. He tossed five innings of one-run ball the next week. Then after missing one start because of a mild neck strain, he returned last weekend to hold the Peoria Saguaros to one hit over 3 2/3 innings, striking out six.

And thanks to his Desert Dogs teammates, who clinched first place in the AFL’s East Division on Monday, Strasburg will get one more chance to pitch this month. He’s slated to start Saturday’s league championship game against the Javelinas, a contest that will be televised live by MLB Network at 2:30 p.m.

After that, Strasburg will head home to San Diego for an abbreviated offseason. He’ll work out on his own, marry his college sweetheart, Rachel, and then head to Florida for his first spring training camp.

The spotlight will shine even brighter on Strasburg in Viera, where major league hitters, teammates, coaches and media members await to scrutinize his every move. If his performance in Arizona the past month is evidence of things to come, he won’t be fazed one bit.

“He’s always going to be under the bright lights, but he just doesn’t get emotionally involved in anything but his pitching,” Cathcart said. “He’s getting a lot of stuff thrown at him, a lot of stuff for a 21-year-old. But you’d never know it. You’d never know if he was an undrafted free agent or the first pick in the draft. That’s what’s really impressive about him.”