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Rays eager to get first look at Strasburg

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:10 PM
WASHINGTON -

Tampa Bay Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez was two days into his stint at the Double-A level when it was casually mentioned before the game the pitcher he would face that night threw a 100 mph fastball.

That kind of news makes you stop and think.

"It's not something you face every day," Rodriguez said.

The Rays should see a few Wednesday at Nationals Park when they face Washington right-hander Stephen Strasburg, whose average velocity this season is a major league-high 95.9 mph. Rays left-hander David Price is second at 95.2 mph. While Price hit 100 on the radar guns during the 2010 All-Star Game, he is not known for throwing a baseball that hard.

Strasburg is one of a few pitchers in the majors who can hit triple digits on stadium radar guns, a feat that creates a stir in the stands and in the dugouts.

"It's cool to see because it's rare. You don't see it very much on the gun," Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "But when it comes down to it, the reason why their 100 is so good is because of their secondary pitches. If they're throwing their secondary pitches for balls than 100 is not going to be that hard (to hit). But if they're throwing those pitches for strikes, it's going to be a lot harder."

Detroit's Justin Verlander hit 100 mph on his 100th pitch of the afternoon April 11 in a game against the Rays. That pitch followed a 99 mph fastball that didn't draw nearly the same reaction because, well, it wasn't 100.

Speed-wise, there really isn't much of a difference between a 97 or a 98 mph fastball than a 100 mph fastball.

"But even those 2 miles an hour make a difference, because you figure two miles an hour harder makes that reaction time less," Rodriguez said. "What makes it difficult in hitting is timing. You get foot down, you see the ball and you react. When he's throwing 100 miles and hour, do you have time to do all that?"

If anything acts in favor of the hitter is a baseball thrown that fast lacks the movement of one that heads home at a slower speed, even if that speed is only 5 mph less. So, the hitter doesn't have to worry about the ball sinking or cutting to the left or to the right.

"That's what physics will tell you, but does it need movement when it's coming at you at 100 miles an hour?" first baseman Carlos Peña said. "That's all the movement you need, that one, forward, toward you."

They are not impossible to hit. Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers homered off a 100 mph fastball from Verlander during last fall's American League Championship Series. And Verlander pitched himself out of a victory against the Rays in April on that afternoon in Detroit.

The Rays couldn't touch Verlander's low- to mid-90s fastball during the first eight innings, but rallied in the ninth when Verlander increased the velocity and lost command of the pitch. That 100 mph fastball? Peña watched it blaze by for ball four.

Still, given the choice, hitters would rather not face someone who can throw 100 mph.

"Your eyes are not really made to react to that type of speed, so it looks like it's lower than it actually is," Rays shortstop Elliot Johnson said. "So what you end up seeing is guys fouling balls off and popping balls up. It appears to be lower than it actually is. It's hard to square it up. Every time I've faced it I've swung underneath it or fouled it off or popped it up."

Johnson remembered attending a game at Wrigley Field in 2001 and watching Richard Hidalgo of the Houston Astros turn on a 101 mph fastball from then Chicago Cub and current Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth, sending the ball over the bleachers.

"It was one of the more impressive things I've seen in my life," Johnson said. "To be able to do something like that is ridiculous."

As Cruz and Hidalgo proved, simply being able to throw a baseball 100 mph doesn't guarantee a swing and a miss, and as Zobrist said, high heat doesn't equate into a dominant outing unless you can throw your off-speed or breaking pitches for strikes.

Once he got over the initial shock of for the first time in his life facing someone who could throw 100 mph, Rodriguez went about his daily preparation for the game.

Rodriguez saw a couple of high-90s fastball that night. He even saw one at 100.

"I don't want to tell you what I did, because that would be bragging," he said.

A home run?

"No, Rodriguez said. "I hit a double."


rmooney@tampatrib.com

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