Stephen Strasburg was with USA Baseball's college national team in Europe on July 16 when he checked his cell phone. Strasburg noticed something odd: about a half dozen missed calls from Rusty Filter, his pitching coach at San Diego State.
"I called him back and found out I made the (Olympic) team," Strasburg said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I made it.' It's definitely a great experience that I'm going to remember for a long time."
After a dominant sophomore season, Strasburg is now preparing to start for Team USA against longtime rival Cuba tomorrow morning (6 a.m. ET in the U.S.) for the opportunity to play in the gold medal game. After Strasburg struck out 11 and carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Netherlands earlier in the tournament, manager Davey Johnson decided it was Strasburg, the only college player on the team, who he wanted to throw against Cuba.
It's a formidable challenge for any pitcher, let alone a 20-year-old who a few months ago was facing hitters in the Mountain West Conference. The pressure will be on Strasburg, who will have to bear down against Team USA's arch nemesis.
"I'd say, most importantly, I've become a lot tougher as a pitcher, tougher physically and mentally," Strasburg said. "I'd say going into my freshman year I lacked both, and definitely I want to credit my teammates and the coaching staff at San Diego State for helping me become who I am today."
It also helps that Strasburg's velocity has climbed significantly.
"I never really lifted weights before my freshman year of college," said Strasburg, who is now 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. "Going in there I lost a lot of weight (initially), and I got a lot stronger and the velocity just started to climb."
Strasburg finished his freshman year and headed to the New England Collegiate Baseball League, where he worked at 92-94 mph and touched 96. Strasburg, the NECBL's No. 1 prospect, left the league toward the end of the summer to pitch briefly for USA Baseball's college national team. Strasburg's fastball now sits in the mid-90s and touches the high-90s when he needs it, just one reason why he's the early leading candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft.
During his sophomore season, Strasburg blew up, mixing a mid-90s fastball with a sharp slider to obliterate his opponents. Strasburg led the Aztecs with a 1.57 ERA in 97 1/3 innings. Strasburg struck out 133, walked 16, allowed just one home run and threw a complete game in four of his 13 starts.
Hard to imagine he could do much better in 2009. College hitters haven't been much of a challenge for Strasburg, whose game plan in college involved "attacking the zone against hitters and trying to blow it by them." The Olympic stage could provide Strasburg with a new challenge that should help his development.
"I think the slider is definitely my out pitch," he said. "It's kind of the go-to one that I've been able to throw for a strike and expand it and throw it out of the zone lately, which is really good. The changeup is still kind of something I have in my back pocket. It's not really a good pitch for the college hitters I usually face because it speeds up their bats, but it's definitely something to show to some more advanced hitters—hopefully I can use it a bit more here."
Strasburg's start against Cuba should be the final stamp on a banner year for the righthander. And even if he struggles, that might not be such a bad thing for him.
"Every pitcher's going to have days where nothing's clicking and then he's gonna have days where he's right on," Strasburg said. "Honestly, I learn a lot more about pitching when I'm pitching on the days when I don't have my best stuff, when I really gave to go out there and have to out-think the hitter. That's the days when I really get better as a pitcher."
Noting The Field
• Japan and South Korea have a heated rivalry in many sports, including baseball. The rivalry intensified this winter when South Korea changed its lineup just 10 minutes before the game during an Olympic qualifying matchup, much to Japan's chagrin. Japan manager Senichi Hoshino reportedly said during the Olympic round-robin that "with Korea, you worry more about changing batting orders than the players.
The rivalry has cultural roots of course but also Olympic ones. South Korea's lone baseball medal, a bronze in 2000, came at Japan's expense as Korea beat Daisuke Matsuzaka. However, Japan exacted some revenge in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, when it beat an unbeaten South Korea team en route to the WBC championship. This Korean team also started strong as the field's only unbeaten team through the round robin at 7-0.
South Korea manager Kim Kyung-Moon sounds like a man who will do anything to avoid a repeat. He told the Korea Times, "We will use all our resources in hitting and pitching for a win Friday . . . Our past seven wins doesn't mean anything now."
The Times reports that lefthander Kim Kwang-Hyun, 20, who beat Japan in the round robin, will once again start for South Korea. Kim, whom the Times reports has a low 90s fastball, curveball and changeup, struck out seven and allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings in the first meeting.
Japan is expected to use lefthander Tsuyoshi Wada, though righty Yu Darvish is a possibility after throwing just two innings against Team USA in the final game of the round-robin.
• Cuba is expected to use 37-year-old righthander Norge Vera against Team USA, who struck out three and went eight innings in his first Olympic start, beating Japan. Vera is the ultimate crafty veteran who also can still reach the low 90s with his fastball. However, the Cubans could start closer Pedro Luis Lazo, as they did in the 2000 gold-medal game against Team USA, or 37-year-old lefty Adiel Palma, who has never lost in international play but who struggled against Canada in the round-robin.
Right fielder Alexei Bell has been Cuba's top hitter as well as the Olympics' biggest bat, despite his 5-foot-9 frame. Seven of his 13 hits have gone for extra bases, including an Olympic-record four triples, and he's hitting .520 overall.
Obviously sending baseball out with its fourth gold medal in five tournaments means everything to Cuban baseball, but playing the U.S. also is always huge, said manager Antonio Pacheco, a longtime member of the national team who played second base in 2000 for Cuba when it lost to Ben Sheets in Sydney.
"The rivalry between Cuba and the U.S.A. is close to my heart," Pacheco told the Los Angeles Times' Kevin Baxter. "This is a big ballgame. These are two teams with great quality.
"It's a big motivation for us to win (the Olympics) . . . Baseball is a big game in Cuba, and this being the last time it is in the Olympics, it will be very emotional for Cubans."
Team USA manager Davey Johnson is 2-2 against Cuba as Team USA's manager, losing in 2005 in the World Cup with Royals righthander Brian Bannister on the mound, then winning the 2006 Olympic qualifier and 2007 World Cup championship games before a round-robin loss in Beijing. He stirred controversy between the two nations by accusing Lazo of throwing at Jayson Nix in the first meeting, but he was respectful in his pregame comments regarding the semifinal matchup.
"They've had the most success of any team in the world," he said of Cuba. "They've been dominant in World Cups, and
they've been dominant in most of the Olympics. So it's a thrill to have
the opportunity to play them.
"We still think we're the best club in North America. Or South America. So we welcome the challenge. We enjoy playing Cuba."
Contributing: John Manuel.