NEW YORK (AP) – Craig Hansen causes a stir as soon as he heads to the mound for St. John’s.

His confident Red Storm teammates get quiet in the dugout while the scouts in the seats behind home plate spring into action, radar guns in hand. Meanwhile, anxious opponents prepare to face big trouble.

“When Craig comes out of the bullpen, the game’s pretty much over,” catcher Joe Burke said. “He has great presence – everybody knows who he is.”

As soon as he throws a pitch, it’s clear why the junior right-hander is being considered a potential No. 1 overall draft pick.

Blessed with an overpowering fastball that routinely hits 95 mph and a downright nasty breaking pitch, Hansen is college baseball’s version of Eric Gagne and Mariano Rivera: a virtually unhittable and unflappable force out of the bullpen.

“His stuff is as good as 75 percent of the closers in the majors right now,” coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “Guys like this, they don’t come around too often.”

The 6-foot-5 Hansen is 2-2 with a school- and Big East-record 14 saves and a Division I-leading 1.01 ERA. He has 72 strikeouts, 14 walks and a mere 27 hits allowed in 53 2-3 innings.

“People ask me what I think about when I’m on the mound,” he said. “Everything just kind of leaves my mind. I just concentrate on hitting my spots, my location and working the batters.”

That’s been a winning approach for both Hansen and St. John’s, which is enjoying one of the best seasons in school history. The Red Storm are 39-14 and enter the Big East tournament, which starts Thursday, as the top seed. They’re one win shy of the school record set by the 1978 team that reached the College World Series.

St. John’s is also ranked No. 23 in Baseball America’s latest poll, recently breaking into the Top 25 during the regular season for the first time since 1981 – when future major league stars Frank Viola and John Franco were in the starting rotation.

“The coach is a pretty good recruiter, and I know they have a couple of good pitchers,” said Franco, in his 22nd major league season and pitching for the Houston Astros. “It’s nice to see them getting back to respectability.”

St. John’s actually has been consistently competitive under Blankmeyer, who’s in his 10th season as coach. The Red Storm won a game in the NCAA tournament last year, and hope to go even further this season.

After starting 9-9, the Red Storm won 30 of their next 35 and captured their first Big East regular-season title since 1992.

A major reason for the success has been the pitching staff, which ranks eighth among Division I programs with a 2.96 ERA.

Junior right-hander Anthony Varvaro, a potential second- or third-round draft pick, is the ace of the starting staff. He is 9-3 with a 2.32 ERA and registered 17 of his 115 strikeouts in a win at Pittsburgh in April.

Another pair of right-handers – sophomore Anthony Sullivan (7-2, 2.47) and senior Jim Wladyka (7-1, 2.96) – have also been major contributors. And then, of course, there’s Hansen to slam the door.

“The way we’re pitching now, we can beat any team in the country,” Burke said.

St. John’s put in a bid to host one of the NCAA regionals, a rarity for a Northeast school. The 16 host sites will be announced Sunday, and the field of 64 teams revealed Monday.

“We have the potential to play well in a tournament setting because of our pitching,” Blankmeyer said. “And when we get late into a game, with a closer like Hansen, it’s a nice feeling. And it certainly scares the opponents.”

Hansen, who established himself as a top prospect after dominating the Cape Cod League last summer, could be St. John’s highest-drafted player. Pitcher C.J. Nitkowski went ninth overall to Cincinnati in 1994.

“I root for guys from the Northeast because I think we have more to offer in terms of longevity and toughness,” said Nitkowski, in his 12th pro season and currently with Pittsburgh’s Triple-A team in Indianapolis.

Hansen has shown he’s a workhorse, pitching two or more innings 12 times in 29 appearances.

“I just like being on the mound and having control over the game,” Hansen said.

Many scouts believe Hansen will join Chad Cordero, Ryan Wagner, Huston Street and David Aardsma as a college closer who took a quick path to the majors.

“I really try not to worry too much about that,” said Hansen, whose adviser is Scott Boras. “My goal and the team’s goal right now is to get to Omaha.”



AP Sports Writer Joel Anderson in Houston contributed to this story.

AP-ES-05-25-05 1529EDT


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