“No, not really.”
The media huddle is always a little larger when Stephen Strasburg pitches, but with the right-hander making his first-ever Major League start in his hometown of San Diego, where he both grew up and attended college, the questions are a little more pointed. So, really, didn’t pitching here amp him up a little more, knowing that 50 family and friends were in attendance, along with countless others who watched him in his collegiate days?
“It’s just another place to me, to be honest,” continued Strasburg, downplaying the larger storyline. “It’s my hometown. I’m an Aztec. But I look forward to pitching in any place in the big leagues.”
The Padres were coming home following a 17-hit parade in an 8-4 win at Baltimore on Wednesday. That offense came to a grinding halt against Strasburg, though, who allowed just three hits over his eight innings of work.
“It was a good homecoming for him,” said manager Davey Johnson, but he didn’t dwell too much on the significance of his return to San Diego either, choosing instead to focus on the rest of the team’s contribution. “It was nice to see the offense come alive, give him some run support.”
In fact, the Nationals plated six runs behind Strasburg, the most help he has received in a start all season. Otherwise, Strasburg was largely his normal self, pitching more to contact as he has done all year long, which allowed him to reach the eighth inning for the first time in his career. Of course, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a little amped up.
“He was throwing hard,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki of how the hometown start may have shown through in Strasburg’s performance. “He wasn’t pitching 92-93 early. It was 96-97. It was coming in pretty firm.”
But that was not the only difference Suzuki noticed in his starter.
“He had a different mentality tonight,” Suzuki explained. “He wasn’t letting the little things bother him.”
That mentality, fittingly, is one he developed and refined just a few miles north of the waterfront up at San Diego State. It is something that Tony Gwynn, Strasburg’s college coach, saw in him before he ever became an All-American or the consensus number one pick in the Major League Baseball Draft.
“The stuff he does on the field, he really had to work at,” said the Hall of Fame outfielder on Friday, as he watched the highlights of Strasburg’s start from his office on campus. “All the other stuff, what you see now is what we saw when he came here as a freshman.”
Strasburg is only four years removed from his Aztec days, but it may seem like a lifetime ago to some who follow the sport. Bryce Harper’s own ascension amidst Strasburg’s rehab from Tommy John surgery shifted some of the attention away from the 24-year-old pitcher, at least until Sports Illustrated pasted him on the cover of their season preview issue in March. But all those accolades only came in the first place because of his off-the-charts work ethic, which had him beating coaches and players to the ballpark early Saturday mornings after his Friday night college starts.
“He outworked everyone in the country and it paid off on the diamond,” said Aztecs assistant coach Mark Martinez, who coached Strasburg for his three undergraduate seasons. “That’s very evident in how good he is.”
Strasburg acknowledged the difference in his approach Thursday night, one that showed flashes of his dominant self again. That should give Nationals fans hope, and should strike fear into the hearts of opponents around the league.
“I just wanted to do a better job of having a better mound presence out there.”
That presence was evident Thursday night, but reporters pushed Strasburg to explain a little more of what it meant to him.
“Just trying to go out there and let your teammates feed off of your confidence,” he elaborated. “When one thing doesn’t go the way you thought it would, don’t let it affect the next pitch. That’s what good pitchers do.”