IRVINE, Calif.—When Virginia’s coaches found out they’d likely be facing San Diego State flamethrower Stephen Strasburg in their regional opener, they began calling other coaches around the nation to gather scouting reports on Strasburg.
"They told us, ‘You’d better not give them anything, because God isn’t giving you more than one run,’ " UVa. pitching coach Karl Kuhn told me tonight over a delicious press meal (the best spread I’ve ever encountered for an NCAA event, by the way). "Seriously, two different coaches called him ‘God.’"
The Cavaliers prepared for Strasburg’s overpowering velocity by moving closer to their pitching machines this week, getting within 30-40 feet, according to sophomore Phil Gosselin. So Gosselin was ready for the first pitch he saw from Strasburg, a 97 mph fastball that he pulled for a solo homer off the left-field scoreboard in the first inning.
That blow seemed to slightly dent Strasburg’s aura of invincibility. The Cavaliers scrapped out another run in the second, taking advantage of two wild pitches (at least one of which should have been scored a passed ball), an infield single and an error.
That was all they’d get against Strasburg, who struck out 15 over seven strong innings. But it was all they needed, as Virginia starter Robert Morey struck out nine over six scoreless innings, and the Cavs broke it open with three runs against the SDSU bullpen to win 5-1.
"Obviously it was a great win for this team," Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. "Our plan worked, and that plan was to battle Strasburg the best that we could, be very, very aggressive in the batter’s box. He had 18 or 19 walks coming into season in 100-plus innings, so we knew he was going to be around the zone. Our hitters were very aggressive early in counts, then when we got into deep counts, we just wanted to foul balls off and work his pitch count up.
"For me, the story of the game was Robert Morey. I thought this matchup was all build-up: Strasburg against Virginia’s lineup. Really I thought it was going to come down to our starting pitcher and defense. I thought at some point we would be able to scratch across a couple runs, and we did that."
Strasburg didn’t look quite himself in the first two innings, but he insisted he felt great physically.
"Everybody had the jitters—this was our first time being in the regionals," Strasburg said. "I was pretty excited to be out there . . . I felt great. I had that adrenaline going; I felt perfect."
Strasburg said he was able to make a few adjustments after seeing Virginia’s approach early on. BA west coast scout Dave Perkin speculated early that it looked like Strasburg was tipping his pitches, and Strasburg suggested the same thing.
"Obviously they were swinging at fastballs early," Strasburg said. "We thought they were tipping, whether it was where (catcher Erik) Castro was setting up or what. So we just changed it up, went over more signs, making sure to hide the ball in my glove better. We went more sinker, more slider, more changeup early in counts. When you face a team from the East Coast, you don’t really know much about them. So as far as developing a game plan, we were able to do a good job to keep our team in the ballgame."
But Virginia’s game plan worked a little better. I’ve got a strong feeling now that the Cavaliers are going to win this regional. Coming in, I liked their chances a lot if they could find a way to beat Strasburg in the opener, and the way they pounded Alex White and his 94-97 mph fastball last week in the ACC tournament, I thought there was a chance they could pull it off. As good as UC Irvine is and as battle-tested as Fresno State is, Virginia’s sittting in the catbird seat.
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