Strasburg set for Arizona Fall League debut

Strasburg set for Arizona Fall League debut

PHOENIX -- If it was Friday night at San Diego State this past college season, it was Stephen Strasburg night at Tony Gwynn Stadium -- standing-room-only crowds amid great anticipation and excitement.

Thus it may be no coincidence that the first Arizona Fall League (AFL) start for Major League Baseball's No. 1 pick -- by the Nationals -- in this past June's First-Year Player Draft will be on Friday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

It's still Stephen Strasburg Friday nights.

"I guess so," said Strasburg during his first media session in the home dugout of the A's Spring Training facility on Thursday. "We'll see what happens."

No start by a pitcher has been more anticipated in recent fall league history: the right-handed Strasburg -- with his 98-mph, flame-inducing fastball -- throwing for the defending six-time AFL title-winning Phoenix Desert Dogs against the Scottsdale Scorpions.

The ballpark holds 7,881, but there's no telling how many fans will attend to see the 21-year-old San Diego native, said Steve Cobb, the executive director of the league. General-admission tickets are sold on a day-of-game basis only. There's no advance sales or assigned seats.

Though the typical fall league game averages only a few hundred fans, Cobb is optimistic about Friday's turnout.

"We're hoping for a big walk-up [crowd]," Cobb said. "Any attention paid to Stephen Strasburg is good for the Arizona Fall League."

Whether home or on the road, Strasburg was assigned by head coach Gwynn to pitch for the Aztecs on Friday nights this past college season. He was 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA, his lone loss coming to Virginia in the NCAA baseball regionals on June 1 -- a Monday -- when he allowed only two runs in a 5-1 loss.

On his final Friday night at home -- May 8 -- Strasburg threw his first no-hitter against Air Force and whiffed 17 batters. Overall, he finished having struck out 195 in 108 innings while walking only 19.

"Those were really exciting times for San Diego State, especially for the baseball program," Strasburg said. "For them to sell out every single Friday for most of the season was awesome."

It was a foregone conclusion that the Nationals would take Strasburg with the top pick, but it wasn't a foregone conclusion that he'd sign. That decision came down to the last minutes of the Aug. 18 deadline. Strasburg signed a $15.1 million contract that wasn't officially announced until well past the midnight ET witching hour.

"In the last two minutes, it could have gone either way," he said. "I really wasn't sure what was going to happen at that point. I was just hoping a deal was going to get done. I'm just thankful it did."

The Nationals have placed Strasburg on a slow track, resisting the temptation to send him to short-season Class A ball and perhaps rushing him to the Majors when rosters expanded to 40 men on Sept. 1. Instead he spent much of the summer at home in San Diego, taking it easy.

"I did some deep-sea fishing, played some golf, spent some time with my family," he said. "I knew this was going to be my last summer off, hopefully for a long, long time."

In September, Strasburg was sent to the Florida Instructional League, where he threw five live innings over the course of two appearances. What the Nationals have in store for him in 2010 is up for conjecture, he said. He signed a Major League contract, though there's no guarantee that he'll be in Major League camp come Spring Training.

All Strasburg knows is that he's ready to get back to work. He's not aware of any pitch count for his first AFL outing. He threw three innings at Kissimmee, Fla., last Saturday, so he figures he will probably go longer than that under the Friday night lights.

"I've thrown five professional innings and definitely want to throw a few more," he said. "I just want to learn as much as I can from a great coaching staff and a lot of top prospects while I'm here."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.