On Thursday night, top MLB draft prospect Stephen Strasburg took the mound for his last regular-season game with San Diego State, against Utah, the only team that has beat him twice in his college career. During warm-ups, a cool breeze hinted at light rain, but that didn't slow down the crowd of Utes fans and baseball junkies who filled Lindquist Field in Ogden, Utah. Almost 1,700 filled the stands -- more than four times the Utes' average home attendance. Among them, a handful of pro scouts kept watch from the seats behind home plate.
One sat near me in the fifth row, sporting a baby blue polo, a salt-and-pepper goatee and blade shades. I introduced myself, but he just pocketed my ESPN business card, nodded, then leaned forward to drop a bulging glob of tobacco spit behind the seat in front of him. I told him I was here to find out what it's like to scout the universal top prospect, from the scouts themselves. "There's not many left," he said, glowering, and yanked a thumb to the gray-haired man beside him. "Only one club."
Earlier this season, I'm told, a crowd of scouts followed Strasburg's every pitch, making the seats behind home plate a forest of radar guns. But as his record approached 11-0, with a 1.24 ERA and just 13 total runs -- highlighted by last week's no-hitter against Air Force -- it became clear that no team could pass him up, even with agent Scott Boras' reported $50 million contract demand. When Strasburg started pitching at 6 p.m., there were just six scouts here: two American League part-timers watching other prospects; two from the Washington Nationals; and two from the San Diego Padres, including my cantankerous neighbor. Of course, the Padres pick third. They're just watching their backs in case Strasburg falls. They don't expect that to happen.
The first inning was rough. Strasburg walked the leadoff hitter, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Utah treated every baserunner like its one and only shot to score. But right-hander Nick Kuroczko pushed a fastball just fair down the first-base line for an RBI triple, then C.J. Cron pinged a 98 mph burner for an infield RBI single. When SDSU manager Tony Gwynn walked to the mound, the scouts joked in hushed tones about the rare conference. "[Strasburg is] saying, 'Coach, I didn't tell you to come out here,'" one said. Cron moved to second on the next batter's groundout, setting up the most important at-bat of the night, when Strasburg showed off the skills and composure that make him such a rare commodity. Right-handed first baseman Austin Jones played the sacrificial lamb.
Behind the plate, all eyes were on four handheld radar guns. But after an inside slider, Strasburg came back with an 80 mph changeup that nicked the bottom of the strike zone. Jones inched toward the plate, so Strasburg decided to overpower him. He brushed Jones back with a fastball that read only 95 on the guns but made the catcher's mitt crack like a wood bat. The next pitch rode inside again, a 98 mph rocket. "You see him squeeze those legs?" asked one scout out loud. Jones swung at the next pitch, a 95 mph fastball on the outside, setting up a full count. Again, all eyes bounced between the mound and the LED radar readouts. Strasburg's motion didn't seem to change, but the ball came out 15 mph slower. Jones watched it pass, catching the outside bottom corner to end the inning on a strikeout. "The guy is filthy," shouted a guy two rows back. "Fil-thy."
"Everybody talks about his fastball," one of the AL scouts said on condition of anonymity. "But his slider might be his best pitch. He'll throw at 96-98 mph, but his slider is almost as fast as other pitchers' fastballs. Then he's got that changeup."
That at-bat put Strasburg into a groove. He gave up four more hits -- six total in seven innings, with two runs allowed -- but stifled Utah's only real chance in the fourth inning. Cron doubled to the left-field track, then advanced to third on a wild pitch that the catcher should have blocked. The next two batters struck out swinging, and Strasburg got the third to fly out to right field. After Strasburg's 10-pitch fifth put him at 75 for the night, I followed the Nationals' scouts to a new seat down the third-base line.
Longtime minor league first baseman Marteese Robinson was the cross-checker. Every team in the majors knows what Strasburg has to offer, but the scouting never ends. But like most of the scouts here tonight, Robinson insisted this was the first time he'd ever seen Strasburg in person. I asked what he thought. He looked at me as if I'd asked what color the sky was. "You were behind the plate," he said.
In fact, the sky was gray and cloudy by the sixth inning. The flag was horizontal. Strasburg never slowed down. His performance never felt epic. He was just a machine, a factory that kept producing outs and varied little according to circumstance. I asked the gray-haired scout how it felt to win the Strasburg lottery. "We didn't win," he said. "We earned it. A lot of pain came with that." He introduced himself as Bob, who scouted "a little bit of everything." I later found out he was Bob Boone.
By the seventh inning, we were back behind home plate, when Strasburg showed another rare talent: overdrive. Approaching the 100-pitch mark, he caught the first batter looking with nothing but fastballs: 94, 95, 96, 96 and 96 mph. The second struck out swinging: 97, 96, 95, 97, 97 mph. Beside me, former Royals shortstop Kurt Stillwell was on the phone. "He just turned on overdrive," he raved, while Strasburg caught the third batter looking with an 82 mph changeup.
I asked Stillwell whom he was working for, and he just pointed at his notebook. The letterhead said "Scott Boras Corporation." The scouts were tight-lipped. Maybe he could comment? "I can be a fan," he said, acknowledging the strictures of NCAA rules. "But he's the best I've ever seen, let's put it that way." As Strasburg moved to the bench, after clinching a 12-0 regular-season record, I couldn't disagree.