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The men who helped mold Strasburg

The men who helped mold Strasburg

SAN DIEGO -- Stephen Strasburg is about to make his Major League debut for the Nationals on Tuesday against the Pirates at Nationals Park, and the two coaches who had the most influence on him as a kid are just as eager as everyone else to see him pitch.

Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Famer from the San Diego Padres and head coach at San Diego State, was trying to reschedule a school event and make last minute arrangements to be there. Scott Hopgood, who had Strasburg at West Hills High School in the neighboring community of Santee, would love to be in Washington, but can't make it.

Tracked down by MLB.com in San Diego this week, both said it's all up to Strasburg now. The learning and growth curves are long behind the right-hander -- the No. 1 pick in last June's First-Year Player Draft -- whose first big league game is the most anticipated event in the Nationals' short history, now in its sixth season.

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Stephen Strasburg

"I'm happy for him, this is what he's dreamed about," said Gwynn, who along with his former pitching coach Rusty Filter turned an undrafted high school kid into the top college pitcher in the country during the 2008 and '09 seasons.

Wisdom? Words of advice?

"He's got them already, I already gave them," said Gwynn, an eight-time National League batting champion, who ended his 20-year career in 2001 with a .338 average.

And what were they?

"'Hey, you pitch your butt off,' basically," Gwynn said. "'You go out and pitch well, let them see how competitive you are, what kind of stuff you have, how you go about your business. And you make the hitters make tough decisions.'"

Hopgood, who is now a physical education teacher and head baseball coach at Junipero Serra High School in San Diego, said his duties on campus will keep him from making the trek cross country to watch his prized pupil pitch.

"I'm really disappointed because I wanted to be there, but there's just no way I can make it out," said Hopgood, who left West Hills along with Strasburg after the 2006 academic year for a full-time teaching position at Junipero Serra.

But he offered these words of advice:

"Just have some fun. It really doesn't matter what else he's dealing with." he said. "I know for a fact that he's mentally ready. He's a professional in every way. This is just another step. He'll do great."

When Strasburg graduated from high school as an unheralded senior, Hopgood didn't even think that he was the best pitcher on his team. Neither did Gwynn, who thought he'd seen other pitchers who were as good or better as he recruited that year in San Diego County.

"I joke about this now with Stephen," Gwynn said. "There was another guy in town who I thought was a little further along than he was."

But Filter, the pitching coach who left State for Stanford after the 2009 season, convinced Gwynn that Strasburg was a talent.

During the transition from high school to college, Strasburg threw in the 90-91 mph range and struggled to complete wind sprints in his first college practice. At the time, Gwynn asked Filter if Strasburg was going to make it. Filter assured him that with conditioning, guidance and peer pressure he would.

"In high school I don't think anybody ever figured he'd develop into this kind of talent," Hopgood said. "If anybody asked me I'd tell them he needed three years in a good college baseball program where he could work out and develop both physically and mentally. Stephen has gone just way far beyond anyone's expectations. The credit has to go to Stephen for making that decision to dedicate himself."

By the time his freshman season started, a well-conditioned Strasburg was throwing steadily at 98 mph. Still wary of his stamina, though, Gwynn and Filter made him the Aztecs' closer. Strasburg wanted to start and by his sophomore year Gwynn accommodated him. It's a move he'll never regret.

None other than Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, told CBSsports.com this week that "no college coach has ever prepared a player better than Tony Gwynn."

In his junior and final season, Gwynn started Strasburg once a week on Friday's only, resisting the temptation to use him more. When the media deluge became too oppressive, Strasburg asked for some help and Gwynn also began filtering and rejecting one-on-one interview requests.

Strasburg was 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA, his lone loss coming against Virginia in the NCAA regionals on June 1, 2009, -- a Monday -- when he allowed only two runs in a 5-1 loss.

On his final Friday night at Tony Gwynn Stadium -- May 8, 2009, -- Strasburg threw his first and only no-hitter against Air Force, and fanned 17 batters. Overall, he finished with 195 strikeouts in 108 innings, while walking only 19.

"Tony was extraordinary," Boras said. "The interest of the player came first throughout. They talk about Tony Gwynn as being a great player, let's talk about Tony Gwynn as a great coach, father, mentor and everything else he did. Tony has crossed lines here where most Hall of Famers don't go. I think a great deal of credit needs to go to him, because of what he's doing currently and the fact that he's taking the time to be a college coach."

Gwynn laughed when told about Boras' remarks. He noted that the Nationals followed suit by placing Strasburg on a restricted two-month Minor League schedule, so he would become accustomed to throwing every five days. The schedule was written up during Spring Training and it didn't deviate. By Strasburg's request, he declined to do one-on-one interviews the day before he started. The only thing that should be different on Tuesday is pitching in a Major League ballpark before a crowd in excess of 40,000.

"That's a big statement [by Boras]," said Gwynn, who still speaks to Strasburg on a regular basis. "People tend to give me too much credit, because they know who I am and what I did. I think Rusty did a remarkable job with this kid, because when he came to school as a freshman he was really rough. Those things you need to have as a top notch pitcher at the Major League level, he didn't have them. Rusty taught him to be a tiger on the mound and to be aggressive.

"Going into his junior year you saw the stuff, the makeup." Gwynn added. "I just tried to give him some words of wisdom that he could carry with him as he moved along. I think he's taken a majority of those words to heart. He's always been a humble kid and continues to be that way. They give me a lot of credit, but I don't think I deserve it. I just kind of encouraged him and here he is."

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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