San Diego State ace Stephen Strasburg pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings to lead the Aztecs to a 2-1 win over New Mexico this afternoon in the Mountain West Conference Tournament at TCU's Lupton Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.
Amid the celebration of the Aztecs (39-19) advancing to Thursday's winner bracket semifinals, however, was what internet broadcasters Chris Ello and Craig Elsten speculated was an oblique muscle injury that forced Strasburg from the game. Strasburg grabbed his left side after walking New Mexico's Adam Courcha on four pitches (Strasburg's only walk) and throwing another ball when Daniel Gonzalez came to the plate with two outs in the eighth inning. Strasburg was relieved moments later by SDSU pitching coach Rusty Filter and replaced by closer Addison Reed.
After the game, Filter said it was only a cramp in Strasburg's lower back and that he was fine after getting some fluids for hydration.
"He just cramped up in his back," Filter told Baseball America's Aaron Fitt. "He was coming out in one more batter anyway. He threw one more pitch, and enough was enough. He’s fine — he’ll be ready to go. He’s back at the hotel bouncing around like college kids do."
Strasburg was reportedly at 90 pitches when he departed. The bright side of coming out early and not being injured is that Strasburg potentially could be available for an inning or two of relief if the Aztecs were to need him on Friday or Saturday.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
On Thursday night, SDSU plays No. 6 seed Utah, which upset top-seeded TCU tonight by a 9-7 score, with the winner there advancing to the tournament finals. The tournament champion receives the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA Regionals.
Strasburg (13-0) allowed three hits over 7 2/3 innings before leaving. Strasburg struck out a season-low six batters and walked one. He lowered his ERA to 1.24 and raised his season strikeout total to 180 with 19 walks in 102 innings pitched.
SDSU scored the game's first run on a two-out double by Mitch Blackburn in the sixth inning. The Aztecs made it 2-0 in the ninth when Easton Gust came home from third base on a wild pitch.
The insurance run made all the difference in the bottom of the ninth when New Mexico rallied for a run off Reed with two outs. Reed hit a batter to load the bases before left fielder Josh Chasse caught a fly ball in foul territory to end the game.
Reed set an SDSU single-season record with his 18th save (in 18 opportunities).
HERE WE GO
1ST INNING — New Mexico senior left-hander John Hesketh gets off to a strong start, retiring Pat Colwell and Brandon Decker on grounders to second base before striking out Brandon Meredith swinging. San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg opens the bottom of the inning by getting MWC Player of the Year Mike Brownstein looking at strike three. Max Willett follows with an infield single to second base, but Strasburg gets Ryan Honeycutt on a popup back to the mound. The inning ends when SDSU catcher Erik Castro cuts down Willett trying to steal second base.
2ND INNING — Three up and three down again for the Aztecs, whose only ball out of the infield is Cory Vaughn's fly out to left field. Strasburg also retires the Lobos in order, although all three hitters avoid striking out.
3RD INNING — Chris Wilson pops up to second, Easton Gust grounds out to first and Ryan O'Sullivan strikes out looking as Hesketh makes it one time through the SDSU lineup without allowing a baserunner. Strasburg also faces the minimum the first time through the New Mexico batting order, getting Justin Howard swinging, Adam Courcha looking and Daniel Gonzalez on a fly ball down the right-field line.
4TH INNING — Colwell gets the inning started with a single and the Aztecs load the bases with two outs, but Hesketh gets Mitch Blackburn on a ball hit back to the mound to end the threat. Strasburg continues to mow, getting a pair of grounders and a fly ball to right field to retire the side in order again.
5TH INNING — O'Sullivan gets a two-out single off Hesketh, but the Aztecs can't move him along. Rafael Neda singles to right to open the bottom of the inning off Strasburg and the Lobos bunt him over to second base. But Strasburg gets a groundout and a flyout and returns to the dugout.
6TH INNING — This game is shaping just like last month's Strasburg-Hesketh encounter, a 1-0 SDSU victory in which Strasburg went the distance and struck out 14. Who blinks first this time? New Mexico. Meredith coaxes a one-out walk and then Castro singles to right-center to put runners at the corners. Vaughn pops up to second for the second out, but Blackburn doubles down the left-field line to score Meredith and give the Aztecs a 1-0. Strasburg has a run to work with now and he strikes out both Corcha and Gonzalez looking before Brownstein lines out to O'Sullivan at shortstop.
7TH INNING — Hesketh exits after allowing a leadoff single to Gust and a sacrifice bunt by O'Sullivan. Reliever Will Kerr gets out of the inning after Colwell walks when pinch hitter Jomel Torres hits into a doubleplay. Strasburg allows a one-out single to Honeycutt, but New Mexico can't make anything of it.
8TH INNING — New Mexico will need two more relievers to get through the inning. They do so without allowing a run, stranding runners at second and third when Wilson strikes out to end the inning. Strasburg gets a fly out and a strikeout before walking Courcha. The All-American has allowed but three hits over 7 2/3 shutout innings, and that's going to be enough on this day. It appears Strasburg has some sort of injury. Play-by-play broadcaster Craig Elsten suggests that it may be a strained oblique muscle. SDSU pitching coach Rusty Filter comes to the mound and calls for closer Addison Reed. Gonzalez fouls off four straight pitches before striking out to end the inning.
9TH INNING — With the Aztecs looking for insurance, Gust opens the inning with a single to right-center. O'Sullivan strikes out swinging before Colwell single to right to put runners at the corners. Colwell steals second to put two runners in scoring position, but then Josh Chasse looks at strike three for the second out. Opportunity appears on the verge of being lost when New Mexico reliever Cole White helps the SDSU cause with a wild pitch that allows Gust to score and make it 2-0.
The Aztecs are three outs away from advancing to a winner's bracket game against the winner of tonight's TCU/Utah game. Reed is 17-for-17 in saves this season, which leads the nation. He goes after the top of the Lobos lineup. Brownstein steps in and is quickly in an 0-2 hole. He works the count to 3-2 before grounding to shortstop O'Sullivan, who backhands a ball in the hole and throws out Brownstein on a ball first baseman Meredith digs out of the dirt. Reed strikes out Willett on a 1-2 pitch for the second out. Pinch hitter Cameron Smith comes to the plate as the Lobos' last chance. Reed starts Smith with a ball, then gets two straight strikes. New Mexico is down to its last strike. But Smith watches two balls load the count before singling to center field on a ball that takes a bad hop over the glove of second baseman Blackburn. Neda follows with another single and just like that the Lobos have the tying runs aboard. . Filter visits Reed at the mound. The sophomore right-hander is perfect in save situations this season, but it hasn't always been clean. Reed again gets ahead in the count 1-2 on New Mexico's Kevin Atkinson and the Lobos are again down to their final strike. But Atkinson singles to make it 2-1. Brian Cavazos-Galvez is now the batter for New Mexico. Reed gets him 0-2, then wastes a pitch for a ball. Then Reed hits Cavazos-Galvez with an inside pitch and the bases are loaded. Howard steps up with a chance to win the game with a single. With a 1-1 count, Howard sends a foul fly to left field, Chasse drifts over and gloves it for the final out. It is Reed's school-record 18th save and it couldn't have come in a more pressure-packed situation.
San Diego State sends ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg (12-0, 1.34 ERA, 174 SO, 18 BB in 94.1 IP) to the mound this afternoon on the second day of the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Fort Worth, Texas.
Strasburg faces No. 2 seed New Mexico, a team he beat last month in Albuquerque with a six-hit shutout. He struck out 14 in the 1-0 win. New Mexico is expeted to counter today with senior left-hander John Hesketh (6-3, 3.61 ERA), who was the hard-luck loser against Strasburg last month.
The winner of today's game plays tonight's TCU/Utah winner on Thursday. The winner of that game advances to the tournament finals.
There should be a good subplot to this SDSU-New Mexico game because Strasburg puncutuated last month's victory over New Mexico with a demonstrative fist pump that didn't sit too well with the Lobos and coach Ray Birmingham. They had only themselves to blame, especially the had coach. Birmingham made some comments about Strasburg during game week — and before — and the pitcher responded with one of his most dominating — and emotional — wins of the season.
Here's part of what Birmingham said: “There’s a guy down in San Diego State rumored to be worth $25 million. When he comes down here, we’re going to make him look like 25 bucks.”
SDSU's Daily Aztec had a good story on the comments and commotion.
I believe Birmingham is a good coach — he took over last season at New Mexico following a stellar junior college coaching career and led the Lobos to one of their best seasons — but he tends to spike himself by putting his foot in his mouth. He's got some good ol' boy in him, so maybe Birmingham's comments came across better spoken than in print. The comments didn't seem to bring forth what he meant by the time they got back to Strasburg. In good ol' boy terms, "Why poke a stick at a rabid dog?"
We'll see today if both sides have put it all behind them or if some bad blood bubbles up in today's game.
SDSU moved up to #41 in RPI after yesterday's 12-1 win over UNLV, so the Aztecs are pretty well positioned for an at-large berth to the NCAA Regionals should they miss out on the automatic berth being award to the MWC Tournament champion.