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ERIK CASTRO has a Wilson A2000 catcher's mitt, black with tan webbing, made of steerhide so supple it can absorb a 102-mph fastball and barely make a sound. Castro is a catcher for San Diego State, and on the night of March 13, as the Aztecs hosted UNLV, he dropped into his crouch and extended his A2000 into the light fog at Tony Gwynn Stadium. San Diego State junior righthander Stephen Strasburg, he of the 102-mph heater, aimed for the leather. As horsehide met steerhide, a string on the glove snapped. The webbing came unhinged. Castro, oblivious to the tattered piece of equipment dangling from his left hand, threw the ball back to Strasburg. The Aztecs ace fired again, and by the grace of God, the pitch was fouled away. "If not," Castro says, "I think I would have died." Chances are, his chest protector would have saved him, but his point is well-taken: Stephen Strasburg has killer stuff.
Over a 40-year career a major league scout of amateur talent will raise his radar gun perhaps a million times at high school and college games. And almost every time only two digits will pop up on his screen. So in the rare instance when he sees a third digit, it is like witnessing the elusive green flash that follows a perfect sunset. After Strasburg touched 101 in the first inning against UNLV, scouts behind home plate reacted with a torrent of hyperbole. Or was it hyperbole? "I've never seen anyone like him," said one. "He's a once-in-a-lifetime talent." "He doesn't need the minor leagues," added another. "He's ready for the majors right now." "The only pitcher I could even compare him to is Roger Clemens in his heyday," offered a third. "This is something you have to see to believe."
Strasburg is famous for those absurd radar-gun readings, for the friction his fingers generate when they rub off the seams, for the hiss the ball makes when it zips out of his hand. There are a handful of major leaguers who reach triple digits (Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, Bobby Jenks of the Chicago White Sox, to name two), but few of them have his delicate touch. Says San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who watched Strasburg in an intrasquad game this season, "He was dominating, as dominating as anyone I've seen. He really has no flaws. You see guys throw in the high 90s, but they usually have no idea where it's going. He can throw in the high 90s comfortably and locate it." Strasburg fanned 23 batters in a game last season, and at week's end he was 4--0 with a 1.57 ERA, but his most startling stat may be his career strikeout-to-walk ratio: 254 to 38, in 168 2/3 innings.
Strasburg cuts a menacing figure on the mound—6'4", 220 pounds, in a black hat, black jersey, black pants, black spikes and bright-red stirrups showing over his calves. He has piercing powder-blue eyes, long blond sideburns and arms that nearly reach his kneecaps. At the top of his delivery he turns his left hip slightly toward third base, as if pulling back a bow and arrow, and then unloads with a high three-quarter release. "It's so smooth," says Aztecs pitching coach Rusty Filter, "it doesn't look like he's throwing as hard as he is." Strasburg has two fastballs, a riding four-seamer that has been clocked at 102 and a sinking two-seamer that tops out only in the mid-90s. That sort of heat can make good hitters look slow; Strasburg's sweeping slider can make them look silly. "We were actually sitting on the fastball," says UNLV designated hitter Ryan Thornton. "I know that sounds crazy, sitting on a pitch that's 100 miles an hour. But it just shows you how tough his slider is."
Strasburg is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year's draft—if the Washington Nationals don't take him, they might get chased back to Montreal—but he is almost as unaffected by status as his coach, former Padres star Tony Gwynn. Strasburg was the only collegian on the U.S. Olympic team last summer, but when he got the invitation, he assumed he was just going to be a practice player, not the starter of a semifinal game against Cuba. He has declined to take out an insurance policy on himself, and against UNLV he slid into first base to make a putout, tweaking his hamstring. After San Diego State home games he does fieldwork with his teammates, sweeping dirt off the mound and using his hands to pack it with wet clay. "I'm just a college kid," says Strasburg, albeit one who is advised by superagent Scott Boras.
IN THE modern sports world it is hard to find a phenom who comes out of nowhere. Professional scouting is too organized, amateur athletics too sophisticated. But Strasburg won just one game as a junior at West Hills High outside San Diego, went undrafted after his senior year and failed to impress Gwynn. "To me, he didn't have a lot of confidence," Gwynn recalls. Strasburg was 250 pounds, had never lifted a weight in his life, and after practice every day went to Estrada's Taco Shop and scarfed down a California burrito, packed with carne asada, and french fries. He could throw 90, but he was so out of shape that his knees would occasionally buckle during games, forcing coaches to help him off the field. "He would just collapse," says his high school coach, Scott Hopgood. "It was scary. His knees couldn't support his weight." When scouts asked Hopgood to name his best pitcher, he pointed them to a polished lefty named Aaron Richardson.
"I know everybody now is asking, 'How did you miss on Stephen Strasburg in high school?'" says a major league scout. "But we didn't miss. He was soft in every way." Strasburg would bark at infielders after errors and at umpires after bad calls. If he gave up a couple of hits and the opposing dugout started to chirp, he had a tendency to overthrow his fastball, which would then flatten out and get smacked even harder. "I told scouts not to draft me," Strasburg says. "I wasn't ready."
Filter saw those radar-gun readings, that swimmer's wingspan, and persuaded Gwynn to take him. During Strasburg's first night on campus it became clear he was a little different. He was living in a dorm at University Towers and was asleep at 10:30 p.m. when his roommate stumbled in with five female students. Strasburg was aghast. A few days later he moved in with his mother and grandmother, who share a nearby house. Then by the end of Strasburg's second week, when conditioning began, he was ready to drop out of school altogether. "I was this close," he says, holding his thumb next to his index finger. "I was going to find a job. We have a Home Depot and a Lowe's near our house."
The man responsible for almost driving Strasburg away, and then for whipping him into shape, is Dave Ohton, the Aztecs' barrel-chested strength coach. When Marshall Faulk was playing football at the school, Ohton called him "a visitor" because he was so extraordinarily gifted and physically mature, he had to be an alien life force. Strasburg was no visitor. When the baseball team convened in September 2007 for preseason workouts on the football field, Ohton had the players warm up by running from the goal line to the 50 and back. Strasburg could not get through four sprints without vomiting. "Is there something wrong with you?" Ohton asked. "Do you have a medical condition?"
Strasburg bowed his head, his chubby cheeks a bright red. "Just out of shape," he said. Ohton nicknamed him Slothburg, which he later shortened to Sloth. "I demoralized this young man," Ohton says. "I didn't even want him around the other players. I had never seen a college athlete who was as far behind as he was. I didn't think it was possible to be that bad." After two weeks of conditioning and purging Strasburg passed Ohton on the stairs in the weight room. "I appreciate your staying on top of me," Strasburg said. Ohton paused at the top of the staircase. "Sloth," he said, "you really should consider quitting. You're not going to make it."