Monday, February 23, 2009

Three Days On The Road

Three games, three totally different experiences, three reports.

Friday: The MLB Urban Youth Academy is on Artesia Blvd, just west of where the 710 meets the 91.  The imagery was unmistakeable as I drove around the facility, an adjunct to Compton Community College.  A black wrought iron fence surrounded the place, then an undeveloped empty space, and then the outer fence of the baseball complex.  In there, the excitement and promise of Major League Baseball.  Out here, the reality of life in a lower-class urban neighborhood.  The question is how to get inside that fence and across the gap, something that has to cross the minds of the kids riding their bikes down Artesia this afternoon.  

I have a press pass, and that's how I cross the gap.  The field is new, clean, and small.  On this day, the season opener and the first game of the MLB Urban Invitational, the Aztecs are throwing the #1 pitcher in the country, Stephen Strasburg, and there are more scouts than fans.  It's a Friday at 2pm, so anybody lucky enough to be at work can't be here.  But the seats in front of our press box are jammed with every scout imaginable, along with GM's like Kenny Williams of the White Sox, and the Pads' top player evaluation brass, Grady Fuson and Chief Gayton.  

Strasburg hits 97 and 98 on the multiple radar guns with easy, struggles to command his slider, and winds up over the 100 pitch mark in the 6th inning.  He "only" strikes out 11 in 5 2/3's, and surprisingly walks a pair.  But watching his poise, confidence, and mound manner, it's clear to see how Stephen has grown from his Olympic experience.  He's played on a bigger stage now, and coming back to college baseball Strasburg really does look like the Big Man On Campus.  
The Aztecs' offense shows signs of encouragement against a very good pitcher as well.  TJ Thomas homers as part of a four-run 2nd inning against conference pitcher of the year Hiram Burgos.  Cory Vaughn runs wild, reaching base three times and then stealing three bases.  And newcomers Mitch Blackburn and Easton Gust, a pair of seemingly cloned switch-hitting 5'9" infielders, combine for four hits, two RBI, a run and two steals.  SDSU beats Bethune-Cookman, an NCAA regional team last year, by a 6-3 count.  Addison Reed closes out, featuring another fastball in the '90s.  His crossfire delivery could cause problems later but is deceptive enough to help out his limited command of a breaking ball.  

Saturday: the feel and atmosphere is completely different for the second day of the MLB Urban Invitational.  The two southern schools bring their bands for this doubleheader, which is also being televised nationally on the new MLB Network.  The stands are full, and the concrete concourse behind the field is flowing with fans and famous faces.  Kenny Lofton walks by, Tony Gwynn is leaning on the rail, and Frank Robinson is ushered through the crowd to make an appearance on the TV broadcast.  The bands are pumping out tunes between innings and perform their routines on the field between games.  Much more of a Southern University atmosphere than San Diego State, and the Jaguars feed off the energy in a 4-2 win over the Aztecs.  

More importantly, though, Southern rides the right arm of Jarrett Maloy.  He doesn't have the fastball of Strasburg or even Burgos, but Maloy works fast and commands both sides of the plate, and adds a breaking ball which he can get over for strikes.  The predominantly right-handed SDSU lineup is handcuffed by Maloy for 5 hits and 2 runs over 7 innings.  The Jaguars then turn to a true freshman, Daniel Garcia, who has a very good fastball and strikes out a pair on route to the save.  The Aztecs strand 9 in the game but for the most part sputter on offense.  Jon Berger starts and takes the loss for State.  His changeup was baffling the first time through the order, but the lack of a quality fastball catches up to him in the 3rd trip through the order. Kegan Sharp relieves and lives up to his name with 1 1/3 strong innings.   

The two-game set in Compton ends with a mixed bag of reactions.  Excitement for the facility, what it can do for the region, and how MLB is putting some of its great wealth to use for a community that needs new things and the promise of a reward for hard work.    Anticipation for what should be a thrilling season watching Stephen Strasburg pitch his way to the top of the draft charts.  It's rare to be able to track such a great future baseball star in this town, and I would suggest that people take advantage of the opportunity and come out to Tony Gwynn Stadium this year.  But, a little bit of concern for an offense that was shackled by a tough right-hander.  

Sunday: back in San Diego for the final game of the tournament.  Cunningham Stadium at USD is the site for the first of five matchups between the Aztecs and Toreros.  They will play a four-game series in the first weekend of March, but this is the opening act.  There are a lot of unknowns at the start of a college baseball season, and two of them are on the mound today.  Tyler Lavigne is starting for SDSU, a JUCO transfer who was an All-American with a 1.13 ERA as a sophomore last season.  Tony Gwynn raved about his sinkerball pregame.  Chris Jensen, a 6'4" freshman, is making his first USD career start.  He was one of the top prep pitchers in Arizona last year.  

From the first inning, it is clear that Lavigne's sinker is for real.  The left side of the SDSU infield is bombarded by high choppers off the plate.  And this is a good thing.  Ryan O'Sullivan, the true freshman from Valhalla, is already showing the range and arm which could mark him as a great shortstop.  He makes a play deep in the hole to deny a hit, and is helped by a great scoop at first from his fellow freshman Brandon Meredith.  Easton Gust at third base is a shortstop transferred from JC and demonstrates a strong arm.

In the 4th, Kevin Muno's Baltimore chop off the plate goes for an infield hit as Gust dives in front of O'Sullivan to disrupt the play.  The next batter, Nick McCoy, slashes a hit-and-run grounder up the middle but Ryan is covering.  He dives, grabs, touches the bag, and then gets up and throws to first in time for the double play.  Amazingly, until the 7th only one USD batter even gets the ball in the air.  

Chris Jensen showed promise for USD, with a sweeping breaking ball, a good 2-seamer, and plus movement.  But he was erratic and-as you would expect from a freshman-prone to wild performance swings.  Jensen was in a jam in each of his 4 innings, pulled with two outs in the 4th.  In the 2nd, the Aztecs were the victim of one of the more bizarre calls I've ever seen.  With two outs and runners at 1st and 3rd, leadoff man Pat Colwell was plunked by an errant curveball which hit him clean on the meat of the arm.  It was one of 7 hit batsmen on the day for SDSU...but only 6 were given their base.  In this case, home plate umpire Mike Allen decided that Colwell didn't make an effort to get out of the way, and made him stay at home plate.  It was a curveball.  Where was Colwell supposed to go?  Disappear?  The exact same thing happened at least four more times afterward in the game, and every time the batter got to take first base.  Simply bizarre.  

Lavigne looked like he was tiring in the 7th, but then settled in to get the last five USD batters on ground balls.  O'Sullivan finished with three putouts and eight assists, and just like that the Aztecs were 3-0 winners over the #11 team in the country, on USD's home field.  An exciting finish to a weekend of promise for SDSU, which opens a long homestand starting tomorrow against Cal State Fullerton.  Of course, the SDSU hoopsters will be hosting BYU at the same time, so it will be a tough draw to Tony Gwynn Stadium, but over the course of the week hopefully you can come check out the team.  Strasburg pitches next on Thursday.  

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