- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Virginia baseball team has seen Stephen Strasburg in action before.

A little more than a month ago, the Cavaliers eyed a broadcast of the San Diego State right-hander as he struck out 14 against TCU, the latest in a string of overpowering performances for the presumptive No. 1 pick in next month’s baseball draft.

“He dominated the game, but they scored three runs off him,” right fielder Dan Grovatt said. “He’s obviously a human being.”

Most of the time, though, Strasburg does not appear mortal. As a result, the Cavaliers are likely about to find out if they can uncover something no one else has this spring - a way to defeat the right-hander and his radar gun-tickling fastball should Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn stick with his usual routine of using Strasburg to open a weekend.

Virginia (43-12-1) was shipped west to the NCAA baseball tournament’s Irvine regional, the reward for collecting an ACC tournament title and winning 14 of its final 18 games. Up first is a meeting with Strasburg, whose exploits loom far larger than any those of any other college baseball player in the last decade.

“It really is an unbelievable opportunity to come out here to California and face arguably the No. 1 pitcher in the history of the professional draft,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “That’s the way you have to look at it. If you’re a competitor and you love challenges, you have to relish this opportunity to compete against the best.

Strasburg’s statistics are startling, the sort of numbers usually compiled in a weak high school league rather than a solid Division I college conference. There’s the 13-0 record, the 1.24 ERA and the .164 batting average against.

Then there’s the strikeouts - 180 of them in 102 innings. They’ve led to some absurd outings, like the May 8 no-hitter against Air Force in which Strasburg struck out 17. In a one-hitter against Utah last year, Strasburg fanned 23.

Little wonder that some Washington Nationals fans view Strasburg as something approaching a messianic figure for their woebegone franchise. Washington holds the top pick, and acting general manager Mike Rizzo has said Strasburg is tops on the team’s draft board.

But before June 9 arrives and Strasburg (who can touch 103 mph with his fastball) officially becomes the future ace of the Nationals, he has the tournament to deal with. And for now, that probably means facing Virginia.

“He’s assured of being the No. 1 pick, and everybody says he’s one of the best pitching prospects ever,” center fielder Jarrett Parker said. “We’re definitely fired up to get a chance to face him.”

And Strasburg is hardly the only challenge awaiting the Cavaliers. Regional host UC Irvine is ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, while the fourth team, Fresno State, is merely the defending national champion.

In many ways, Virginia might be as well-suited as anyone to deal with perhaps the deepest regional in the tournament. The balanced Cavaliers led the ACC in batting average and finished second in runs scored and third in slugging percentage - and did so with a staff that led the conference in ERA.

It hardly mattered that Virginia was the No. 6 seed entering last weekend’s conference tournament. In a meeting with North Carolina’s Alex White, the Cavaliers torched the likely top-10 pick for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings. White’s mid-90s fastball isn’t quite in Strasburg territory, but Virginia’s treatment of the Tar Heels ace indicates an ability to deal with elite pitchers.

“There’s a lot of kids in the ACC that throw hard,” Grovatt said. “There was a kid at Georgia Tech that hit 99 on the gun last weekend. We faced all those kids. Velocity isn’t an issue for a team like us, facing the people we faced in the ACC. I don’t want to say it’s business as usual, but we definitely have an advantage facing the pitchers we’ve faced.”

It is Virginia’s sixth straight NCAA appearance and perhaps one of the Cavaliers’ most surprising in that stretch. Virginia has just four seniors, with only starting pitcher Andrew Carraway a fixture during weekend series. The team remained competitive all year with eight losses coming by a run.

“I’m as impressed with this team as any team I’ve coached at Virginia,” O’Connor said. “This entire year we have handled defeat very well. That was what I didn’t know coming into it. I felt we had really good talent. What you don’t know with inexperience is how they will handle defeat, how they handle losing a one-run game.”

Quite well, it turned out - all the more reason for the Cavaliers to believe they’re prepared to deal with the NCAA’s greatest force.

“The ACC championship really showed how much and how far this team has gone since the beginning of the year,” Grovatt said. “We’ve absolutely grown over the course of the season. I think we’re ready.”

• Patrick Stevens can be reached at pstevens@washingtontimes.com.

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