Monday, May 11, 2009 | As two giants of San Diego State baseball exited the clubhouse door at Tony Gwynn Stadium following Sunday afternoon’s game, a line of autograph seekers quickly assembled before each one.
One figure looked like a veteran, smiling and listening to what the kids said, because that’s exactly what he is. Tony Gwynn, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame two years ago, has done this a few times in his 20 years as a big leaguer with the Padres and seven as SDSU’s head coach.
The other guy also looked like a veteran, stooping from his 6-foot-5 height to hear what kids told him, even though SDSU All-American pitcher and Olympic bronze medalist Stephen Strasburg is only 20-years-old.
“For a guy 20 years old,” Gwynn said, “with all the things he’s had to deal with this year, he’s still level-headed and thinking about his team. That’s rare.”
What Strasburg has dealt with this year is unusual national attention that includes a feature story in Sports Illustrated and on down throughout the food chain of print and electronic media.
“He’s probably the most recognized guy in college baseball,” Gwynn said.
The junior right-hander has not only been labeled the projected first pick of the 2009 amateur draft next month, he’s been called the best pitching prospect ever to come out of college baseball.
His agent, Scott Boras, is expected pursue a record $50 million deal. While that would have most 20-year-old kids already having picked out an expensive sports car, Strasburg won’t allow himself to look ahead of SDSU’s quest for an NCAA tournament berth.
“All year I’ve been centered on this program,” Strasburg said. “I just want to keep us in the ballgame. You can’t put too high of expectations on yourself because baseball is going to humble you.”
With all that attention to live up to and expectations to carry the program, you would think there would have been one game when his concentration was somewhere else than the mound or his physical timing and techniques were off.
That would be a game when Strasburg lost his composure and gave up a costly home run at the wrong time, couldn’t find the plate or booted a ball in the field.
But Strasburg is 11-0 in 12 starts, with his most recent game his first career no-hitter when he struck out 17 in a 5-0 win over Air Force before a record crowd of 3,337 at the stadium named for his head coach.
“He has the same approach every game,” said junior catcher Erik Castro. “He takes it pitch by pitch, batter by batter. That’s what makes him successful.”
And the only reason Strasburg isn’t 12-0 is the bullpen blew a 2-0 lead at Brigham Young when he left the game after seven innings after having struck out 15. Gwynn and pitching coach Rusty Filter have adhered to a pitch count that removes him from games around 115 pitches.
Strasburg’s secret is he’s not only throws a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, he controls his location as well as his emotions. Or you’d think he would have yawned at or even snapped at a reporter for asking a question he’s heard hundreds of times.
“He’s like a rock star, but he stays so calm and consistent,” Castro said. “His outside life reflects how he is in games. He’s the same guy when I first met him — he hasn’t changed a bit.”
SDSU true freshman Ryan O’Sullivan, SDSU’s regular shortstop and starting pitcher with a 4-2 record, turned down a pro contract with the San Francisco Giants coming out of Valhalla High. A key reason is he knew so many scouts would see him when they came to see Strasburg.
“It’s turned out to be more than I imagined,” O’Sullivan said. “I’ve learned so much from the coaches about the game and about how to handle pressure from (Strasburg).”
One way Strasburg handles the pressure is the old-fashioned way.
“Fans don’t see how hard he works,” Gwynn said. “They don’t see the conditioning he puts in, the time in the weight room and what he says in team meetings. The fans only want to know what the radar gun says or how many strikeouts he has.”
Strasburg has plenty of reasons to peer into a bright future, but late Sunday afternoon he wasn’t looking past signing autographs for kids on a day he otherwise could have slipped out a side door since he didn’t pitch that day.
“It was a great experience for possibly my last home game,” Strasburg said of his Friday no-hitter. “I’ve really enjoyed myself being an Aztec. I’ve had a lot of great memories here.”
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.