A Doubleheader in February
"It's a beautiful day for a ballgame... Let's play two!"
- Ernie Banks
Is there anything better than a doubleheader? In February, mind you?
Well, my brother Tom and I attended two college season openers yesterday. Two games. Two ballparks. Two of the top-ranked prospects in the country and two of the best pitching performances on the opening weekend of the year. All in all, it was a beautiful day, one that Mr. Cub would have loved.
The first game of our day/night doubleheader matched San Diego State against Bethune-Cookman at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy's Collegiate Baseball Tournament in Compton. The second contest was the opener of a three-game set between Long Beach State and the University of Southern California at Dedeaux Field.
Tom and I were joined by general managers, scouting directors, area scouts, and agents in making the 15-mile, 25-minute trip from Compton College to USC. Of the nearly 1,000 fans at each of the two games, approximately 5 percent were employed by MLB teams.
Come the draft in June, we may look back and say there were closer to 6 percent. Scratch that. Not June. But August. You see, Scott Boras represents Stephen Strasburg and Grant Green, who just may go 1-2 in the draft. If not for the weak economy, I could see Boras asking eight figures for Strasburg, the first college player to be named to the U.S. Olympic team since the decision was made to use minor leaguers beginning in 2000.
Boras, whose son Shane is a freshman infielder for USC, was at the evening game. The agent must have been in a great mood after getting the lowdown from one of his scouts on Strasburg's pitching performance earlier that afternoon. While not perfect, the 6-4, 220-pound righthander was dominating, striking out 11 of the 23 batters he faced without allowing an earned run over 5 2/3 innings while leading the Aztecs to a 6-3 victory over the Wildcats.
IP H R ER BB SO
Strasburg 5.2 3 1 0 2 11
Strasburg's fastball lit up the radar guns. While a couple of scouts had him at 100 in the first inning, his gas was sitting at 96-99 from the windup and 93-96 from the stretch all afternoon. His curveball, which is more of a tight-rotation slurve than a 12-to-6 drop, was 79-81, a few mph below his normal 81-84 range according to a scout who has followed him closely. Strasburg's breaking ball didn't have as much depth as you might like, especially when he released it away from his body, but it is an effective companion to his heater.
If Strasburg's fastball is a "plus plus" or a 75/80 on the 20-80 scale that scouts use, his curveball was more like "solid average" or a 55 on Friday. He experienced occasional problems in landing his front foot correctly, causing him to be a bit off balance when throwing his slurve.
As for a third pitch, Strasburg didn't show much. Out of 103 pitches, the 20-year-old junior threw his changeup one time. ONCE. As in one more time than zero and one less time than two. At 88 mph, it's a pitch that many major leaguers would welcome as their fastball. The one scout would like to see him throw it more often and another scout I spoke to told me that it "looked good in the bullpen" before the game.
Aside from the 11 Ks, Strasburg induced four groundball outs and two opposite-field flies to left. He hit one batter, walked two more, and gave up three hits: a first-inning double, a grounder that was pulled just inside the third-base line on a well-located curve below the knees; an infield single to lead off the third that could have gone either way; and a run-scoring single to right field in the sixth, which was the last pitch he threw before being taken out of the game by manager Tony Gwynn.
Strasburg is undoubtedly a special talent and only a major injury or unreasonable bonus demands will keep the Washington Nationals from drafting him No. 1 in the MLB Draft in June.
After getting our fill of one "burg" in the day game and knowing we were going to be watching a "berger" (as in USC RHP Brad Boxberger) in the nightcap, Tom and I opted not to get a hamburger between games and instead settled for prime rib sandwiches at Quizno's. We took the 91 freeway to the 110 and avoided traffic – not bad for rush hour on a Friday in Los Angeles – until a few exits short of our destination, arriving in plenty of time to snag seats in the second row directly behind home plate.
We were treated to another superb pitching performance, one that looked every bit as outstanding as Strasburg's in the box score but not quite up to the same level from a scouting perspective. Not to be outdone, Boxberger allowed just one hit and no runs while striking out a career-high 11 batters en route to USC's 5-3 victory over Long Beach State.
IP H R ER BB SO
Boxberger 6.0 1 0 0 6 11
Boxberger was most impressive in the first inning when he struck out the side after allowing the first two Dirtbags to reach base on a walk and an infield error. His fastball was electric in the opening frame, hitting 92-94, but quickly dropped to 90-92 in the second, and sat mostly in the 80s thereafter.
The 20-year-old junior whiffed two more batters in each of the next three innings (although only one of the three non-strikeouts was put into play as the other two were recorded on runners attempting to steal second base), running his K total to nine through four innings. He failed to punch anybody out in the fifth but nailed two more in the sixth to give him 11 for the evening.
Boxberger not only had a combined 17 strikeouts and walks but found himself in several 3-and-2 counts, throwing a total of 123 pitches on the night. However, the 6-2, 200-pounder came up big when needed, overpowering the opposition's slow bats and keeping them just enough off balance with his slider and curve. An area scout who pitched in the majors during the 1990s told me that Boxberger "probably needs to choose one or the other because you need a lot of feel to throw both."
Unless Boxberger can build up his arm strength, he might make a better reliever than a starter. If so, it wouldn't be the first time that he was asked to pitch out of the bullpen. He was the closer for the Chatham A's of the Cape Cod Baseball League last summer, appearing in 19 games and recording nine saves while striking out 28 without allowing a home run in 18 2/3 innings. Boxberger has good bloodlines as his father went 12-1 with a 2.00 ERA and was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1978 College World Series in leading the Trojans to a national championship.
Robert Stock, a junior who doubles as the starting catcher and closer, went 2-for-3 with a walk, threw out two runners (one in which he made a quick release and great throw after backhanding a pitch) and tossed a perfect ninth (while hitting 90-91 on the radar gun) for his first save of the season. The 6-1, 190 LHB/RHP cranked a double to right-center to lead off the bottom of the second inning and lined a single to left on a curveball from a southpaw that was on the outer half of the plate in what can only be described as a nice piece of hitting. His only out was another liner to left that looked like a hit upon contact but was run down.
Stock, who skipped his senior year in high school and just turned 19 three months ago, hasn't fulfilled the lofty expectations placed upon him since being named Baseball America's Youth Player of the Year in 2005. He has hit .248 (59-for-238) with only 14 XBH in two summers in the Cape for the Cotuit Kettleers. But it is important to remember that Stock is still young and has always played against older competition. This just might be the year that he breaks out.
The main disappointment of the day was watching Green go hitless in four at-bats while striking out three times, twice looking. The 6-3, 180-pound shortstop was fit to be tied, perhaps trying to do too much in his debut. He swung and missed with a pronounced upper cut on several hittable pitches and took a few others that were in the strike zone but not in his wheelhouse. With USC pitchers striking out 15 and nailing two trying to steal, he didn't have a lot of activity in the field but made a nice play ranging to his left on a chopper over the mound.
A scout sitting in the row behind us said Green "doesn't look as strong as he did in the Cape" (when he hit .348/.451/.537 and was among the league leaders in most offensive categories) and believes he's not as physical as Troy Tulowitzki, a comparison that I mentioned after watching him make his collegiate debut two years ago and others have made as well. He likes his hands and thinks Green can stick at shortstop in the pros, yet seemed unconcerned because the only thing that could keep him from manning that position is getting too big, which wouldn't necessarily be the worst thing in the world.
* * *
The USC-Long Beach State weekend series will resume tonight at 5 p.m. at Blair Field while San Diego State faces Southern University in the MLB Urban Youth Academy Tournament at 6:00 p.m. The latter game will be televised live on the MLB Network. I'm going to the Trojans-Dirtbags contest and will be in my seat in time to see actress Sandra Bullock, who lives with her husband Jesse James in nearby Sunset Beach, throw out the first pitch.
Update: Sandra Bullock and the Long Beach State hitters pulled a no-show on Saturday night as the Trojans shut out the Dirtbags 4-0 in the second game of the weekend series before a record crowd of 3,342 at Blair Field.