Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
University of Utah pitcher Stephen Fife has moved up from eighth-rounder to possible third-rounder or better.

April 11, 2008, is a day Utah right-hander Stephen Fife will always remember. It was the day he lost a pitcher's duel to San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg, 1-0.

So, what is so memorable about a loss? Well, that one stands out to Fife.

That day, major league scouts were scattered throughout Tony Gwynn Stadium in San Diego checking out Strasburg, a sophomore right-hander who is expected to be a first-round pick — if not the first pick — in the Major League First-Year Player Draft next year.

Strasburg, the first-team All-American and Mountain West Conference Pitcher of the Year, definitely didn't disappoint that day. He allowed just one hit and fanned 23 Utes in the impressive complete-game victory.

At the same time, Fife didn't disappoint, either.

In fact, he helped his own cause.

He allowed just five hits and one unearned run in the loss, while striking out five in 6 2/3 innings.

"I went into that game knowing the guy across from me had more talent than I did and more raw ability, but if I could compete the way I knew I could compete and execute one pitch at a time and execute correctly, I could keep us in the ballgame," Fife said.

"That was a turning point in the season and there were a lot of scouts there to see that happen."

Fife, a junior, started the 2008 season as a prospect — a possible eighth- to 12th-round pick. Slowly, Fife, who posted a 2.72 ERA in conference games, continued to improve and move up the draft ladder. He was a MWC first-team selection and was one of the top three pitchers in the league.

"Once conference hit he got in his stride and really made some improvements over the year and a half, two years he was with us," Utah baseball coach Bill Kinneberg said.

Before the head-to-head battle with Strasburg, Fife, who has an above-average fastball and curveball and improving change-up and slider, had moved up to a possible fourth- to eighth-round pick. But with that one outing, he vaulted himself into a possible top 3rd-round pick or even higher, and he could be the highest player ever taken out of the University of Utah.

The outing against San Diego State was the third of three consecutive brilliant performances for Fife.

In the first of the string, he allowed just one hit to Air Force in a complete-game victory, and he followed it with a six-hit outing (in seven innings) in a victory over Utah Valley State College, and then topped it off with five hits in 6 2/3 innings at San Diego State.

In those three games, he allowed a total of 12 hits, four runs (one earned) and fanned 18 batters.

Now, Fife is considered by Baseball America as the 57th-best prospect in the Major League First-Year Player Draft, which begins today and continues Friday.

BYU SS Daniel Vargas, OF Kent Walton and OF Sean McNaughton, Utah 2B Cory Shimada (Murray HS), Southern Utah OF Nick Freitas, Utah Valley RHP Marcus Moore (Roy HS), Southern Nevada C/IF Braeden Schlenhuber (Viewmont HS), LHP Egan Smith (Pleasant Grove HS), and SS Easton Gust (Riverton HS) could also be drafted sometime in the two-day draft.

For Fife, who worked out with the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend, it's a matter of where not when.

"(Scouts) started calling every week (after SDSU)," Fife said.

At that point, he needed to focus even more and a sit-down meeting with Utah pitching coach Bryan Conger helped him do that.

"He told me, 'You can only control what you can control. If you accept the fact that these guys are going to be coming and accept the fact you have a really good shot at being drafted and you stay focused on helping this team win every day, that stuff will work itself out,"' Fife recalled.

"When I was throwing, it was my day to put my head down and keep my eyes down and stay focused on what was in front of me that day instead of what was going to happen.

"(He said) 'Focus on day-to-day goals, hour-to-hour goals and week-to-week goals, and if you meet those goals then things are going to happen the right way."'

He finished the season 7-5 with a 3.72 ERA. He allowed 91 hits in 92 innings, surrendered 49 runs (38 earned) while striking out a team-high 78 and walking just 29.

His seven wins were also a team high, and opponents hit a team-low .252 against him.

"This year it took off," said Fife, who was a three-sport star at Boise's Borah High School. "I thought I could do something special in terms of athletics whether it be football or baseball."

When football went south early in his senior year of high school, he focused his attention on baseball.

He attended Everett Junior College and was an all-conference performer, going 9-2 in his one and only season there.

Last year, his first year at Utah, he was 6-2 in 17 appearances (six starts) and posted a 4.43 ERA. He struck out 53 and walked 31.

"The goal of being a professional baseball player didn't really come around until at the end of my junior college year when I thought I had some success," he said.

He will find out soon where all the hard work will take him.

"I've never really been a big prospect in terms of professional baseball and it's been a progression since I left high school," he said. "Last year it really started to build, and this year it all came together at the right time."


MLB First-Year Player Draft, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Today: noon to 7 p.m.

(first 20 rounds)

TV: ESPN2 (noon to 4 p.m.)

Friday: 9:30 a.m. until completion

TV: None


E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com