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April 12, 2010

On the Beat

The Strasburg Debut

by John Perrotto

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Randy Tomlin, with his boyish face and soft-spoken nature, might not conjure visions of a grizzled baseball man until he removes his cap to reveal a bald pate. The 43-year-old, though, pitched in the 1991 and 1992 National League Championship Series with the Pirates and has extensive experience as a college and professional pitching coach. As a lefty who got by with deception and a killer changeup in lieu of pure stuff, he is well qualified to teach pitching.

Stephen Strasburg, conversely, is 21 years old and has five professional innings on his resume. While the first overall pick in the last year's first-year player draft is so talented that he commanded a draft-record $15.1-million contract from the Nationals following his outstanding career at San Diego State, he has seemingly not acquired enough experience to qualify for a teaching certificate.

However, a rather odd dynamic is forming during the embryonic stages of the coach/player relationship between Tomlin and Strasburg. The teacher is teaching the student about life in professional baseball and how to survive and thrive in the Eastern League with the Nationals' Double-A Harrisburg farm club, while the pupil is teaching the instructor a few things about pitching.

"I'm actually learning a lot from him," Tomlin said Sunday after Strasburg won his professional debut by pitching five solid innings in Harrisburg's 6-4 victory at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona over the Pirates' farm club. "I've never been around a pitcher who has as much talent as Stephen has. He has an unbelievable amount of talent and he is very gifted. He just does everything right, from his work ethic to his mechanics to the way he executes his pitches. I'm learning about a whole new level, of what it's like to do things the right way, and that helps me become a better teacher when I'm dealing with our other pitchers."

Strasburg did not quite live up to the hype that surrounded his debut. Of course doing that would have required him pitching a perfect game, striking everyone out, going back to the clubhouse and finding a cure for cancer then taking another minute to solve all the United States' economic woes before showering and hopping the team the bus for the Senators' next series at Bowie.

Yet, it was good enough. Strasburg allowed four runs, only one earned, and four hits while walking two and striking out eight. He threw 56 of his 83 pitches for strikes and also notched his first professional hit when he doubled to the right-field wall in the fourth inning off Rudy Owens, the Pirates' minor-league pitcher of the year in 2009. On top of all that, Strasburg showed one of the hallmarks of being an ace pitcher by stopping a losing streak, as Harrisburg had began the season with three straight losses.

"There was a lot of excitement," Strasburg said. "I had a lot of adrenaline flowing and it was kind of hard to get settled down. Once I did get settled down, though, I was able to keep the team in the game and give us a chance to win. Ultimately, we won the game and that's the most important thing. We were 0-3 and we needed a win."

However, one can be all but certain that the palindrome-like crowd of 7,887 that jammed into the scenic ballpark nestled into a hillside and bordered along the right-field fence by the Skyliner rollercoaster from adjacent Lakemont Park won't remember who won or lost when they think back on this day. They were there to see Strasburg, and the rest of the world was watching, too, as ESPN streamed the game over the Internet and ESPNews cut away to the action each time Strasburg took the mound.

Furthermore, Altoona media relations director Dan Zangrilli issued 70 credentials to 37 different outlets for Sunday games. A normal Altoona home game on a Sunday might draw 10 media members, which is already on the high side for an Eastern League game.

While he wasn't overpowering, Strasburg did show why he is considered a future Cy Young Award winner. His fastball sat in the 96-97 mph range and touched 99. He also threw a number of curveballs that seem to defy the law of physics and complemented the hard stuff with a changeup that needs some polish but was effective enough to usually keep hitters off balance.

Strasburg had a shaky first inning as Alex Presley smacked a two-out double off the right-field wall and scored on Miles Durham's single to center. Altoona then increased the lead to 4-0 with a three-run fourth that included two errors.

"I thought Stephen showed a lot of poise in that inning," Harrisburg manger Randy Knorr said. "We didn't play very good defense behind him and he could have let that inning get out of the control but he kept his composure. He was a little shaky at time but that's to be expected because it was his first professional game. Overall, I thought he did a really good job."

Based on how he pitched in spring training, some observers felt Strasburg should have started his career in the major leagues. However, Strasburg said he agreed with the Nationals' decision to start him off in Double-A with the plan being that he will make three or four starts with Harrisburg then three or four with Triple-A Syracuse in the International League before making his major-league debut sometime in early June.

"I have some things to work on," Strasburg said. "Altoona has good hitters and they hit some balls hard. I can learn from this start and carry it over to my next start. The next time, I'll trust my stuff better. I won't be trying to overthrow as much and forcing the issue. I'll make sure I  stay more relaxed."

That next start will come Friday night when Harrisburg hosts New Britain in the Pennsylvania capitol. When Strasburg made that comment, it brought a smile to Tomlin's face. Strasburg might be talented, but he certainly does not think he has the game figured out.

"He's got really good makeup to go with the talent," Tomlin said. "As good as he is, he doesn't think he knows everything. He's very willing to listen and he wants to learn. He's got a good head on his shoulders. You put all that together and it's easy to understand why we're so excited to have him in the Nationals' organization. He's very special."

---

Seemingly everyone in baseball is looking for a metric to properly determine players' defensive worth and teams' efficiency in the field. Count Diamondbacks third base and outfielder coach Bo Porter among them, in a sense, as he has created a points system that rewards his outfielders for hustling, aggressive plays.

Porter in his first season with the Diamondbacks after spending the last three seasons with the Marlins as their third base coach, outfield coach, and baserunning instructor. Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch likes what Porter has brought to the club in encouraging his outfielders to take more risks.

"Our outfield defense has improved this spring," Hinch said. "Our outfield range is a big part of what we are."

Porter believes a team needs its outfielders to play aggressively to be successful. However, he also feels outfielders should play it smart and not dive for balls when a miss could result in the opponent taking extra bases because of a misplay.

"Every game situation is different," center fielder Chris Young said. "We are just trying to be smart out there in the outfield."

---

The White Sox are 2-4 and averaging just 3.5 runs a game as manger Ozzie Guillen's renewed emphasis on "small ball" has not paid off in the early going. Guillen has taken some heat from the fans on the Chicago talk shows because they believe he is bunting too much and playing for one run far too often. Not surprisingly, the outspoken Guillen is firing back at his critics.

"Well, don't watch it," Guillen said. "That's easy, man. If you don’t want to watch the way I'm managing this club, be a Cub fan or talk about something else. I'm not going to tell people why I do stuff, what I did."

What really seemed to roil White Sox's fans was a 5-3 loss in 10 innings to the Indians last Thursday. Guillen asked second baseman Gordon Beckham to sacrifice bunt twice in that game.

"They talk about taking the bat away from Beckham," Guillen said. "That's the seventh and ninth innings and I've got my two best hitters, the only guys swinging the bat well right now, right behind him. I don't have to explain to anybody why I do stuff. I've got this job and I'm going to run this ballclub the way I think it should be run. And I'm going to run this ballclub the way I think is best for the team. I'll bet you they don't think about striking out 12 times. They struck out twice with men on third base, bases loaded, they don't talk about that. They talk about how I run this ballclub. Shame on them. This is my seventh year here and I'm here for a reason. I'm here because I know what I'm doing."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Red Sox corner infielder Mike Lowell is leaning toward retiring at the end of the season. Meanwhile, the Red Sox won't hesitate to deal for another big bat if designated hitter David Ortiz struggles but few teams are likely to have interest in reliever Manny Delcarmen, their prime trade bait, whose value has plummeted in the last year. …The Rays are considering releasing designated hitter Pat Burrell and replacing him with Hank Blalock, who is at Class AAA Durham. … Many pitching-needing clubs are hoping the Royals will put right-hander Gil Meche on the trading block once they inevitably fall out of contention. … As much as they would prefer not to do it, the Tigers might fast track 19-year-old prospect Jacob Turner if they need a boost in their starting rotation at some point in the season.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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