IRVINE, Calif. – Stephen Strasburg, meet struggle. Might as well accept its presence now, as grating and demanding as it inevitably will become.
Struggle is bound to ride shotgun with Strasburg during his fast-track journey through the upper reaches of the minor leagues and into the big leagues. Barring a cataclysmic turn of events, he will be the first pick in the June 9 draft, going to the abysmal Washington Nationals. The hitters he faces will be professionals, beginning the day he reports to whatever minor league outpost the Nats send him after he signs for the most money ever handed an amateur.
Comparatively, Strasburg heard only whispers Friday against Virginia in what is almost certain to be the flame-throwing right-hander's last college game. Virginia beat San Diego State 5-1 in an NCAA regional opener at UC Irvine, handing Strasburg his first loss since last summer's Olympics.
He allowed two runs in seven innings, striking out 15 and walking none while throwing 118 pitches, a line that would make most any pitcher proud. But it wasn't good enough, especially early, when the second batter Strasburg faced, Phil Gosselin, smoked a knee-high 97-mph fastball against the scoreboard beyond the left-field wall for a 400-foot home run.
Strasburg became a bit unhinged in the second, two wild pitches sandwiched between two singles that produced another Virginia run. When Gosselin batted again, Strasburg threw his only 99-mph pitch of the game, then fumbled a dribbler in front of the mound for an error. The going got easier as the game progressed – he struck out the last three hitters he faced – but the damage was done and Strasburg's pitch count mounted until seven innings became his finish line.
"Everybody had the jitters," Strasburg said. "It was tough playing a team we'd never heard of. There was no scouting report to rely on the first time through the batting order.
"We thought they were tipping our pitches when [catcher] Erik Castro set up so we changed it up a little after the first two innings. We went more to sinkers, sliders and the changeup earlier in the count."
Until Friday, Strasburg's ascent to the pinnacle of prospects had been remarkably trouble free. He entered the regionals with a 13-0 record, a 1.24 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 102 innings. His fastball has touched 103 mph and normally sits at 98 mph. Some scouts feel his slider is a better pitch than the fastball. And his stuff is complemented by ungodly command.
Knowing all that, Virginia's hitters took an aggressive approach. They'd prepared by taking batting practice standing 40 feet from a pitching machine cranked to maximum velocity.
"We looked for the fastball and knew he'd be around the plate," Gosselin said. "His velocity supplied the power. I just wanted to get the barrel on the ball."
Meanwhile, San Diego State couldn't get anything going against Virginia right-hander Robert Morey, a late-blooming sophomore who had read about Strasburg's exploits in Washington newspapers and online. Although the Aztecs had at least one runner every inning, Morey didn't allow a run through six, and three relievers finished up.
"Robert Morey was the story of the game," Virginia Coach Brian O'Connor said.
Which only proves that Strasburg struggled. Tony Gwynn(notes), the Hall of Famer who is in his seventh season as San Diego State coach, agonized over whether to pitch Strasburg on Friday or Saturday. Had the Aztecs' No. 2 starter, Tyler Lavigne, pitched Friday, he could have been brought back for Monday's final if they got that far in the double-elimination format. Not Strasburg, not when he'd had at least five days rest between every start this season. Not when he stands to become an instant multi-millionaire before summer ends as long as his arm is healthy.
Asked if there was any scenario in which Strasburg would pitch Monday, even in relief, Gwynn answered, "What do you think?" Maybe realizing it didn't matter what the questioner thought, only whether he would call on Strasburg on two days rest, Gwynn added, "Rather than look ahead until Monday, let's look ahead to tomorrow."
College coaches are notorious for ratcheting up the pitch counts of even top big league prospects as the regionals progress to super-regionals and into the World Series. But don't expect it from Gwynn. He wouldn't jeopardize Strasburg's future even though this is San Diego State's first regional appearance since 1991.
No. 7-ranked Virginia took exception to being sent 3,000 miles to a regional that includes the No. 1 team in the nation (UC Irvine), the defending World Series champion (Fresno State) and the team with the best pitcher. After winning the ACC tournament, the Cavaliers thought they deserved better treatment from the NCAA selection committee.
Not until an hour before game time did they learn they would face Strasburg.
"We were pretty excited," Gosselin said. "He had the best college season of all time. We saw it as an opportunity."
Soon enough the Virginia players will be able to make the 115-mile drive from Charlottesville to Washington, buy tickets and root for Strasburg pitching for the Nationals. Or will they?
"I'm a Phillies fan," Gosselin said. "I hope they knock him around."
He smiled, perhaps reflecting on his home run, then added, "It's always cool to see guys on the highest stage that you've been successful against."
By the time Strasburg reaches the big leagues, he probably won't remember Gosselin, Morey or any other Virginia players. He'll remember leading San Diego State to the regionals. And he'll remember his introduction to struggle.