Baseball is a funny game. Coaches can analyze you, measure you, and time you all they want, but the only thing that matters is can you deliver between the lines. In the two years since high school I have been in a category of “people that don’t deliver”. Last year as a left-handed pitcher, that at times registered on the radar gun as high as 85 mph (a pretty good velocity for a division two lefty) was a “touchdown guy”, and for those of you that don’t know that means I pitched in the game when we were up seven runs or down seven runs. It was somewhat embarrassing for me, because I felt that I had more talent than that. But it was because of my constant pitching Achilles heal, strikes. Throwing strikes has been my problem since I left the comforts of high school baseball. In a game last year in Orlando, Fla. against St. Joseph’s (IN) I managed to throw just 42% strikes, and although I only allowed one run, I limped through the game. I was constantly right around 50% strikes every time I took the baseball, and that is not going to lead to success. I am sure when I left after the season last year my coaches did not have the highest of expectations for me for the coming season, and the saddest thing is I couldn’t blame them.
But I left with a goal. I wanted to live up to the talent that I felt I have, and turn myself into what I considered a “weekend-starter” caliber pitcher. I wanted to earn the right to be one of the four guys that gets the baseball every weekend against our conference opponents. These are our four guys. The ones that we count on, the ones that win or lose conference championships. And while you can’t win a championship without a complete pitching staff, including your “touchdown” guy, I want to be the guy that can throw six innings and give his team the chance to win games. So that was my goal, and I was determined to work towards it.
I spent the summer in Honolulu, HI playing in the Hawaii Collegiate League. This league does not get the publicity that Cape Cod or the Northwoods League receive, but I would be willing to bet a lot of the talent is on par with those leagues. We had players from all over the country, from the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10, Mountain West, WAC, Big West, Ivy League, Big East, Missouri Valley, and various division two and three powerhouses such as perennial world series participants UC-San Diego (D2) and Chapman (D3). This gave me the chance to learn and absorb what guys that have continuously gotten it done on big stages are doing. I was able to learn how they carry themselves on and off the field, and how deliberate they are with each action they make between the lines. If I could say the one thing that I absolutely took away from this summer, its that I learned what a college baseball player is. I worked hard to make myself one, I experimented with workout bands and weighted balls, long tossing and flat grounds. I made myself consistent, and I made myself confident.
So when we returned to St. Paul, Minn. for fall ball practice this week, I felt confident and ready to chase after my goal. For the first time in college when I stepped on the field this week I felt that all my goals and aspirations were suddenly very attainable. I don’t know if my coaches or teammates saw or noticed, but I personally felt I played this week with a sense of swagger, just a little bit different attitude then what I’ve had on the field since high school. I had to wait until Friday to get the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, to prove it between the lines. You can work hard in all the drills you want, but what the coaches want to see is are you a guy that can go collect outs, can you execute pitches to help us win. After four days of waiting I finally got my chance, and I took my new found swagger to the mound.
Keep in mind that every hitter in our inter-squad scrimmage starts with a 1-1 count, so just three off target pitches and you’ve walked someone. But I came out firing. I punched out the first hitter on three fastballs. The second hitter was set down on back-to-back strikes, and when the next three hitters all hit rollers to the shortstop my first set was done. Through 14 pitches I had delivered nine strikes (thats 64% for anyone that was wondering, because I was) including some great off-speed pitches in the zone. I had located my fastball and was in complete command of every aspect of the game around me. But its not enough to do it once, anyone can do it once, that is why we throw two sets. That second set is the separater between the guys that get lucky, and the guys that get it done. After watching a teammate throw his first set, I retook the mound. After the first batter became my fourth straight ground ball victim, a slow roller to the second baseman, I found myself getting into trouble for the first time. I threw two straight balls to the next hitter, I battled back, but eventually walked him. My first walk of the fall, and something that had haunted me for two years. For a moment all those negative thoughts came rushing into my head, was I suddenly back to the old me? I had to step off the mound and take a deep breath. I told myself to knock it off, everybody walks a person now and then, I was still me, I still had my swagger. After going to 2-1 on the next hitter, I delivered a brilliant fastball on the hitters hands which he grounded right to the short stop, and in any game probably would have resulted in a tailor-made 6-4-3 double play. I was suddenly back. The next hitter again was the victim of a well placed inside fastball and chopped an easy one to the third baseman. Another strikeout and a ground ball out later and I was done for the day.
I was excited for my performance, how could I not be? I delivered between the lines. Part of me wanted to run over to the coaches and just receive all this praise and hear how great I was, but part of me understood that I should have been doing this all along, that I didn’t deserve all this praise, this should be an expectation, the norm. Plus who was I kidding? This isn’t third grade, coaches aren’t like that anymore. So I went in the dugout had a drink of water and collected my thoughts. When I finally walked over to the coaching staff I got my final stats for the day. I threw 32 pitches, 20 of them were strikes, which when rounded was a 63% strike percentage. I topped out at 81 mph with my fastball but more consistently sat 78-79 mph. I got a couple hand shakes and some job well dones, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered to me is I had taken a step toward showing the coaches that I am capable of going out their and dominating all aspects of the game. I am okay that I won’t blow fastballs by anyone, but if I can execute a pitch on the inside corner it doesn’t matter, a hitter is going to hit a soft ground ball on that every time. I have come to understand pitching more, and come to understand my capabilities more. As the season goes on I will probably level off around 80-84mph with my fastball, and that will be plenty.
I know that yesterday I took a big step towards my goal of being a weekend starter. But plenty of other guys had good outings this week too. I am not rooting against any of them. If we have a pitching staff of seven righties and five lefties that can all throw above 60% strikes and hit spots and command the running game, we will probably be playing for a national championship. If one of my teammates is more deserving of that weekend role, then I will accept whatever role I’m given to help the team win, as long as I have shown how I’m capable of pitching, I know I will get plenty of innings in whatever role I serve. But we all have a competitive nature, and I want that weekend job badly. We have some great young guys, so its not going to be easy. Hopefully we all push each other to that point where it doesn’t matter who our coach puts out there, we are all going to be successful.
Now I get to enjoy my weekend and get ready for practice on Monday.
For more information on myself and my teammates please visit www.cugoldenbears.com
For more information on the NSIC conference please visit www.northernsun.org
And, for more information on the Hawaii Collegiate Baseball League please visit www.hawaii-cbl.com