Saturday, May 9, 2009

Another Magical Strasburg Moment

On Oct. 7, 2001, over 60,000 fans packed into Qualcomm Stadium for an otherwise meaningless baseball game between the Padres and Colorado Rockies.
The fans were there to see only one thing: to see if Tony Gwynn -- Mr. Padre -- could deliver just one more hit.
He had already delivered 3,141 of them in his glorious career, and Padre fans had enjoyed every single one. But on this, the final day of Gwynn's final season, they had come out for one final tribute.
The stage was set in the bottom of the 9th-inning as Gwynn strode to the plate for his final
at-bat against Rockies closer Jose Jimenez. Forgotten at that moment was the score
(14-5 Rockies), the situation (the final game of the season between 4th-place San Diego and
last-place Colorado), and even the fact that history had already been made earlier that afternoon (when Rickey Henderson recorded his 3,000th-career hit).
The 60,000-plus rose to their feet to cheer the legendary outfielder one last time. And then they roared as Gwynn...grounded out to short.
Oh, well. That's the way it usually goes in baseball. You can set up the moment all you want, but most of the time it doesn't exactly play out the way it does in the movies.
Unless you're Stephen Strasburg.
On Friday night at Tony Gwynn Stadium (that last ground-out didn't exactly ruin the legend) on the campus of San Diego State...a standing-room-only, record crowd of 3,337 turned out to see the Aztecs' pitching phenom in one last appearance before he likely becomes the first pick in next month's Major League baseball draft.
They came out to see if the greatest pitcher in college baseball history (according to many scouts) could deliver one last memorable moment on his way to the big leagues.
Of course, with all the hype and all of the anticipation, Strasburg couldn't possibly....well, chances are, you know by now he exceeded even the wildest of dreams.
A no-hitter. And 17 strikeouts. A 5-0 victory over Air Force. In his final home game. An almost unbelievable finish to what has been an unbelievable career.
Call Hollywood.
"He's been pitching like that all year," said his head coach, the very same heroic outfielder who bounced out that gray October day against Jimenez. "It's almost like I'm not really surprised. But it is fitting."
How about remarkable? Amazing? Monumental?
Not the no-hitter, necessarily. Because those do happen from time-to-time. But they're not supposed to happen under these circumstances. Endings just aren't supposed to be this happy.
Michael Jordan made his final shot for the Chicago Bulls, and with it, won his 6th NBA championship. But he ruined the perfect ending by playing another couple of years for the Washington Wizards.
Brett Favre finished his Hall of Fame career for the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. Then ruined that by coming back as a New York Jet (and now maybe again as a Minnesota Viking).
Ted Williams homered in his final game for the Boston Red Sox, and Cal Ripken homered in his final All-Star game.
But a no-hitter the last time you ever take the field in front of the (lucky) fans who have watched you develop into a college sensation? That's off-the-charts.
Unless you're Strasburg.
Among all of the amazing things he has accomplished this season -- an 11-0 record and 1.24 ERA for starters -- the most amazing thing about Strasburg is that he has been expected to do something special every time he has taken the mound.
And special is exactly what he has delivered without fail. Strasburg has started 12 games this season and struck out at least 10 batters in 11 of them. The only game he didn't win this season, he pitched 7 innings, allowed just 2 hits and struck out 15. The only reason he didn't win that game was because the bullpen allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away after he left.
He leads all of college baseball in strikeouts (164), has walked only 17, and has averaged better than 17 strikeouts per every nine innings pitched.
And now this. Against Air Force, Strasburg retired the first nine batters -- and struck out seven of them (including six in a row). He allowed a leadoff walk in the fourth and the sixth and that was it. He retired the final 12 batters of the game, and just to go a bit beyond Tinsletown, he struck out the side to finish off his no-hitter in the 9th.
Eric Castro caught the final pitch and then -- in a moment of exuberance -- tossed the ball haphazardly into the air. It landed to the right side of the mound as Strasburg danced off the left side flinging his glove to the grass in celebration.
The crowd, as they did the day Gwynn returned to the dugout after his final swing, screamed and leaped and roared the remarkable achievement they had just witnessed.
In Gwynn's case, they had cheered a Hall of Fame career.
For Strasburg, they cheered another magical moment. The ultimate case of an athlete rising to the occasion -- and then rising above even that into the stratosphere.

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