Three Strikes: April 14

Strike One: Make That Strike Three, Times 23

San Diego State sophomore righthander Stephen Strasburg struck out 23 batters in a complete-game one-hitter Friday against Utah.

It’s hard to decide if the scariest thing about that performance was that Strasburg was just trying to pitch to contact, or that he missed his start last week with a viral infection in his ear that affected his equilibrium and left him less than 100 percent against the Utes.

"It was not as well as I’ve felt," Strasburg said. "I felt a lot better two weeks before against Houston. Just coming off being sick, my endurance wasn’t really there. I was kind of surprised because my velocity was where it usually was the first four or five innings, then I started to get tired. I was like 97-99 the first two, then I went down to like 95-96 the next six. The seventh through ninth I was like 93-95. Usually my velocity takes a little longer to get down."

With fatigue like that, who needs freshness?

Strasburg struck out the side in order in the first, then recorded two strikeouts in each of the second, third and fourth innings. Utah got its first baserunner on Corey Shimada’s leadoff walk in the fourth, but he was erased trying to steal second. He struck out the side in order again in the fifth before "running into trouble" in the sixth. Michael Beltran led off the inning with a chopper up the middle–the only hit Strasburg allowed–and reached second when the next batter, Tyler Relf, laid down a sacrifice bunt. Strasburg fielded the bunt and threw errantly to first base, creating a first-and-second, no-outs predicament.

Piece of cake. Strasburg simply struck out the next three batters in order. Then he struck out the side in order in the seventh and eighth innings, and he topped the day off with a pair of strikeouts in the ninth, getting Jesse Shriner swinging to end the game.

"I just try to get ahead early in the count, and once I get ahead I try to make a quality pitch and not make a bad pitch where he can hurt me," Strasburg said. "I was able to get ahead most of the night pretty consistently, and then I was able to expand the zone and get some missed swings. I threw maybe two changeups to a lefty, got a flyout on one of them. I’d throw my slider for strikes early on, throw my fastball, then expand the zone and throw the slider low and away to righties."

The 23 strikeouts were a Mountain West Conference record and the most in a game at the Division I level since Miami’s Neal Heaton struck out 23 against Indiana State in 1981. The all-time record still belongs to Miami (Ohio)’s Buddy Schultz, who struck out 26 against Wright State in 1973. Strasburg’s pitching line also produces a game score of 107; for comparison’s sake, the best game score for a major league in a nine-inning game is 105 in Kerry Wood’s iconic 20-strikeouts effort against the Astros in 1998.

"I didn’t know anything about the records or anything, I wasn’t really paying attention to anything like that," Strasburg said. "I was just hoping to go five or six innings to keep our team in the ballgame. I just kept pitching, and in the sixth or seventh the fans stood up and started clapping, and I realized I did something. I was on my 18th or 19th strikeout at that point. It was a real close game all the way through."

The Aztecs needed Strasburg to dominate, because they managed just one run of their own against Utah’s Stephen Fife, and that wasn’t until the seventh inning. But their hulking ace picked them up and carried them to a win Friday, setting the stage for a three-game sweep that kept SDSU atop the MWC standings.

"It was pretty intense," Strasburg said. "We needed to keep winning in conference and set the tone for the weekend. It was just one of those real close games, and we were able to win our next two."

Strike Two: Priday’s Big Friday

Only a 23-strikeout game could steal the spotlight from Missouri on Friday night. All the talk heading into Missouri’s showdown with Texas centered around the amazing Aaron Crow, who carried a 42 2/3 inning scoreless streak into Friday. But all the talk afterward was about Missouri senior outfielder Jacob Priday, who smacked a Big 12-record four home runs and drove in a team-record nine. Priday took advantage of a 30 mph wind gusting out to center field, which also helped spell the end of Crow’s streak in Texas’ six-run first inning. But at least three of Priday’s homers were moonshots that likely would have been out in any conditions.

"We don’t get the kind of wind that was blowing Friday but once every 10 years, because it was out of the west," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. "It was sustained 20-25 mph, gusts around 40. When the ball gets up in the air, it’s a joke. The last game I remember like that was against Oklahoma State in 1996, it was 23-22. (On Friday) it was a combination of the wind, the cold, the strike zone, the fact we really swung it well."

Even after Crow and the Tigers fell behind 9-0 heading into the bottom of the second, they did not panic. Instead, they scored three in the bottom of the second and 10 in the third, en route to a 31-12 massacre. Priday wasn’t alone in the homer parade, as Missouri first baseman Steve Gray went deep twice and outfielder Aaron Senne hit another.

The Tigers continued abusing Texas pitching on Sunday, scoring 13 runs on 17 hits–and no homers. Missouri batted .500 (43-for-86) in the first two games, as the Longhorns got horrible starts from Austin Wood on Friday and Brandon Workman on Saturday, and their bullpen provided no relief.

"We’re a team in transition," Texas coach Augie Garrido said before the series. "Some of us (in the Big 12) are, and some of the teams are playing probably closer to their full potential than we are. That’s on one hand disturbing but on the other hand the reality of it all. Our inconsistencies come primarily from the defense behind the pitching and the returning pitchers that have not been as consistent as we hoped they would be."

When a team scores 44 runs in two days against Texas, it’s jarring. Even more jarring than Aaron Crow giving up nine earned runs in two innings.

"His stuff was good, but he wasn’t ahead in the count, and they were geared up to hit him," Jamieson said. "Crow really makes teams either really bad or really good. Teams will cheat a little on the fastball and if he’s not locating, they’ll get out in front of the fastball. I think a lot of things got to him, and he wont admit it, but the streak, the pressure, the wind blowing out, there were a lot of factors. When I heard the forecast, I said it was going to end tonight."

Strike Three: Phoenix Rising

ELON, N.C.—Elon righthander Steven Hensley is a candidate to go in the first five rounds of June’s draft, but his appearances have been up and down so far, leaving room for speculation.

He put some of those thoughts to bed Friday night in a 16-1 rout of Western Carolina. Hensley’s first pitch of the night was a 92 mph fastball on the outer half. Nick Liles got the barrel on it and pushed a home run to straightaway right field. Hensley, a little surprised, reached back on his next pitch and put a 93 mph fastball over everyone’s head into the backstop.

He walked Barret Shaft on four pitches, fastballs that all finished high and to his arm side. The next batter successfully laid down a sacrifice bunt, but Hensley induced a fly ball and grounder to get out of the inning with just the home run.

“I was kind of shocked,” Hensley said of the leadoff homer. “You’ve just got to gather yourself and start pitching again.”

He also expressed his trust in the Elon offense, which got started in the second inning with a Chase Austin home run and a Dallas Tarleton RBI double. Even after bouncing back in the first, Hensley looked like he was pressing for the first couple of innings. A pair of sliders got too much of the plate and a couple of fastballs rode in too far, one hitting a batter.

Through the first three innings Hensley had given up one run on three hits, a walk, an HBP and no strikeouts. However, he was commanding his slider well and throwing it for strikes. His fastball was sitting comfortably at 91-92 mph while his slider was at its best when it was 76-78 with good break.

After three innings, Hensley found his groove and let the whole stadium know it. On the mound he was calm and collected, but when he got a big strikeout or the defense made a good play, he jumped around, pumping his fist, trying to pump up his teammates.

Hensley finished the night with his fourth career complete game. He threw 122 pitches and scattered eight hits while walking one and hitting three. He also struck out 11, all from the fourth inning on. He improved to 7-0, 2.28 with 64 strikeouts and 19 walks in 55 innings.

One scout said during the game that he was impressed with how Hensley looked compared to previous starts he had seen this season. Hensley’s arm slot was higher than before and he was maintaining his velocity well. He hit 93 several times and touched 94 twice. In the ninth he was still comfortable around 91 and hit 93.

“His arm was live,” Elon coach Mike Kennedy said. “In the bullpen his arm looked good. Outside of that he threw his slider for a strike when he needed to.”

Kennedy added that his command was outstanding and he simply looked fresh.

A couple of other Phoenix players stood out. Elon has a talented group of freshmen that have come up big in 2008. Shortstop Neal Pritchard has hit .299 with six homers toward the bottom of the order and has flashed some great defense. Outfielder Harry Austin (a redshirt freshman) forced himself into the lineup during Pat Irvine’s slump. Austin is undersized at 5-foot-7, 150 pounds, but he can hit the ball to all fields and is an above-average runner, getting to first base at 4.12 seconds. He’s batting .333 with 13 steals in 14 attempts.

Behind Hensley and its deeper lineup, Elon won the series and improved to 28-9, 12-3 and first place in the Southern Conference. The Phoenix have three more road series in the league, including back-to-back affairs with College of Charleston and UNC Greensboro that will test their claim to being the league’s top team. But taking two out of three from preseason SoCon favorite Western Carolina makes Elon the clear front-runner.