Aztecs’ Strasburg lives up to billing

The telephone rang in the sports information office at UNLV around 2 p.m. on Thursday. A local college baseball fan had a question:

“Is the guy who throws 140 miles per hour pitching tonight?”

People are so naive.

He only throws 102.

You have to wonder if Stephen Strasburg is half Griffin and half Phoenix. Is that an arm or missile hanging from his right shoulder? The fable has grown to these imaginary depths, one amateur pitcher whose reputation borders on more storybook character than college junior.

Which would be funny if all the hype wasn’t so accurate.

Strasburg wasn’t at his best against the Rebels at Wilson Stadium, which I guess means he might have struggled against the Yankees. He gave up one run and seven hits and had the audacity to walk a batter while reaching a high of an earthly 99 mph.

I’m sure he’ll learn from it.

As it is, the guy major league executives advertise as the best pitching prospect ever to take a college mound won his seventh game against no losses in San Diego State’s 15-4 rout of UNLV.

You have to exist within the neighborhood of flawless to be in a game against Zeus Strasburg, and the Rebels forfeited any chance of that when they committed a third error, their pitchers (I lost count at five) hit a second batter, walked a ninth and one of the team’s baserunners wandered far off second for some inexplicable reason following a walk and was tagged out.

Stuff like that happens … in Little League.

Strasburg went six innings and struck out 13, giving him 107 for the season against 11 walks in 54 1/3 innings. He has more command of his pitches than Bocelli of his voice.

That’s what people don’t talk about enough when it comes to Strasburg. Speed is the sexy trait that lights up radar guns; control is the quality that adds zeros to a signing bonus, which in Strasburg’s case might eventually look something like the gross domestic product of your average African nation.

Scott Boras will represent him. We are talking monopoly money.

“Speed is an asset, but what does it do for you?” said one American League scout in town watching Strasburg. “The only time it helps is when you make a mistake, you can get away with it more often. A lot of guys have good stuff, but they can’t put it where they want.

“(Strasburg) can. He has the best curveball I’ve ever seen from an amateur. You get 98 (mph) on the fastball, and then you get that damn curve coming at your knees — late, sharp and big at 84 (mph) — and you buckle. Nobody in the big leagues throws a curve that hard. He could pitch in the big leagues today.”

That’s the long term.

This is the short one: Strasburg is not only good for an Aztecs team that is Tony Gwynn’s seventh since the Hall of Famer assumed control of his alma mater’s program but is also beneficial for a Mountain West Conference that has never in its history earned an at-large berth into the NCAA regional baseball playoffs.

Strasburg gives a league clout where there has been little before. He is the marquee name that has been missing to ensure Mountain West baseball is part of the national conversation. Are you telling me if the Aztecs are on the fence as an at-large team, Strasburg’s name and resume won’t add weight to the argument? Of course it will.

He could be pitching in the bigs for the Washington Nationals by late summer, assuming the worst team in baseball is not also its dumbest and passes on him with the No. 1 pick. It’s true great power pitchers are a far bigger risk than great power hitters.

It’s also true you can’t pass on this kind of potential.

“I’m trying to help build a tradition here,” Strasburg said. “I’m not even talking about any of the (other) stuff. We’re trying to win a conference tournament and get to a regional. That’s where I want to go right now.”

Crazy thing, life. On the same day one young promising rookie pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels is tragically killed at the age of 22 by a suspected drunk driver, another young golden arm continues its pursuit of a professional career whose possibilities for success are as can’t-miss as anyone could ever assign someone who throws this hard this often.

Enjoy someone like Strasburg. How often do you see greatness this close?

“I told our players to embrace it,” UNLV coach Buddy Gouldsmith said. “As a player, you should look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on the field with someone who is as dominant a pitcher as college has seen.”

He’s right. Zeus is nasty.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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