[Web Special] Is Stephen Strasburg the Best Pitcher Alive?

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It had to be somebody, but I bet Virginia didn’t think it would be them.

The Cavaliers finished the season with the best record in the ACC (43-12-1) and had every right to expect a cushy, first-round NCAA baseball tournament berth somewhere in the fragrant South against, you know, Coastal Carolina or Elon. Instead, the Cavs got on a plane and flew 3,000 miles via John Wayne Airport to Irvine, California, on their way to a first round match-up this afternoon with the San Diego State Aztecs. The ‘tecs haven’t made the tournament since 1991, so it sounds like no big deal, right? But the Cavs know better, because they’re probably going to have to face Stephen Strasburg.

Never heard of him? You will. Soon. Strasburg, who will start Friday for San Diego State — No. 1 pitchers in college ball are “Friday pitchers” because teams play conference games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday — is the best collegiate player in the country. By far. He may be the best pitcher in the world.
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In 102 innings this year, Strasburg gave up 57 hits, walked 19 and struck out 180. Pitched a no-hitter and struck out 17 against Air Force. Struck out 18 in a game against Nevada. Led the country in ERA with a microscopic 1.24. He was the national player of the week five times.

Strasburg is not some dummy. He's got a near 4.0 GPA in Public Administration at SDSU, and he’ll graduate in just over three years because of all the AP credits he piled up in high school. And he can throw a baseball 103 miles per hour. Some scouts think he hasn’t topped out yet physically. When he does, they say, he may throw a baseball faster than any human who’s ever lived. He already throws faster than anyone in major league baseball. He’s got breaking pitches in the high 80s — which is where most pitchers find their fastball. If anyone ever teaches him a good change-up, he’ll make big-league hitters look Little League.

Strasburg is the only person any serious major league team would consider with the number one pick in baseball’s amateur draft in June. However, the team with the number one pick this year isn't serious. It's the Washington Nationals, whose management has oscillated between venality and incompetence over the last decade or so in Montreal and D.C. Last year, the Nationals failed to sign one of the best collegiate pitchers in the country, Missouri’s Aaron Crow. They got hung up in a dispute over $700,000, so Crow is now unscored upon as he pitches for the Ft. Worth Cats in an independent league and waits for this year’s draft to assign his rights to another major league team.

By most accounts, Strasburg’s agent will be the barracuda Scott Boras. Boras has already been quoted as saying he’ll be looking for major league, number one pitcher money for Strasburg. Not "number one prospect" money. "Number one" money: Roy Halladay money. C.C. Sabathia money. Boras vs the Nationals should be quite a show.

What to watch for this weekend in the sixteen double-elimination tournament:

Poor Virginia. After they’re done facing Strasburg (broadcast live nationally on ESPNU at 7 Eastern), they’ll play either U.C. Irvine – the consensus number one – or Fresno State, the defending national champion. You have to wonder what Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor did to piss off the NCAA selection committee.

Speaking of which, the selection committee displayed its usual regional and conference biases. The tournament is heavily larded with teams from the Big 12 and the SEC – eight teams from each conference, including Baylor, which lost 12 of its last 14 regular season games. The West, which typically produces the tournament champion, was ignored. Only three Pac 10 teams – Arizona St., Washington St., and Oregon St. ndash; made the tournament. (Three schools from the Big 10, no one’s idea of a serious baseball conference, did too.) San Jose State, the best team in the WAC, was left out. U.C. Irvine, No. 1 in the Baseball America poll (and virtually every other one, too), was seeded sixth and placed in the toughest first round bracket while Texas and LSU get virtual walkovers into the second round.

If you want a favorite to win the tournament – hey, I know you’re laboring over your brackets as you read this – go with Arizona St. They have the best non-Strasburgian pitcher in the tournament, junior Mike Leake (14-1, 1.24), who shouldn’t follow Strasburg by much in the first round of the draft, and a line-up which includes two of the very best hitters in college baseball, juniors Jason Kipnis (.380, 14, 65) and Carlos Ramirez (.347, 18, 67). They may also go in the first.

Two schools from New York State made it this time: SUNY Binghamton, which is actually in a somewhat winnable bracket, and Marist, which gets offered up to perennial powerhouse Florida St.

2006 and 2007 champion Oregon St. is a great dark horse pick to win the tournament: coach Pat Casey is the best college coach in the country, they’re coming off an inexplicable snub from the tournament selection committee last year and the Beavers have a deep and very effective bullpen, led by Kevin Rhoderick. In the first round format, which can end up with a team playing five games in four days, a good bullpen is the last thing most college teams have and the first thing they need.

The tournament format: This weekend, sixteen pods of four teams, playing in a two-losses-and-you’re-out format. Next weekend, the sixteen remaining teams remaining will be matched up in eight best-two-of-three series. The eight winners advance to the College World Series in Omaha, where they will be divided into two pods of four, again in a two-losses-and-you’re-out format. The two winners of those pods will then face each other in a best two of three series for the national championship.

— Jeff Beresford-Howe