Stellar staff of pitchers leads Mesa into regional tournament
You hear the cry from the bullpen in the first inning of every Colorado Mesa baseball game.
As in, “Zoom it, Henry Rowengartner,” the kid pitcher in the movie “Rookie of the Year.”
This season, unlike any other at CMU, the pitchers zoom it.
Ask coach Chris Hanks when he knew he might have something special in the pitching staff and he doesn’t hesitate.
There were questions, but there was so much promise.
And so, so much depth.
“We were looking at a model, and we tried to do it early in the year, conceivably of a thing where we’ve got two starters in every game and a closer, and maybe a middle guy,” Hanks said. “We could go (Kyle) Leahy and (Chris) Ramirez and a closer, and the next day (JR) McDermott and (Jake) Mielock.”
The piggyback model didn’t pan out, mainly because the starters were just so good.
“You’re not going to take a Leahy out in the sixth inning when he’s at 72 pitches and just dealing,” Hanks said with a laugh. “We saw it in the fall, the potential of it, and I believe there’s a potential as we close up, I think there’s another notch in their game if they can find it late. If they do, or enough of them do, it could end up being a special year.”
McDermott, the 2016 RMAC freshman and pitcher of the year and a Division II All-American, started out slowly, but he’s found his rhythm the past month. He’s coming off a 12-strikeout performance against CSU-Pueblo in the conference tournament, allowing one hit in eight innings.
Leahy, who earned the No. 1 starter’s role and was this year’s RMAC pitcher of the year, fanned a career-high 15 against New Mexico Highlands in a Friday night game that had his roommate, McDermott, wondering if his school and conference single-game strikeout record of 19 was in jeopardy.
“A little bit in the back of my mind,” McDermott said, grinning. “I’d better step it up a little bit and give him some competition down at the end (of the season).”
The pitchers challenge one another to be better, and they’re the first ones jumping out of the dugout after a shutdown inning.
“We’re about to find out what this staff can do,” said Leahy, the quiet, unassuming ace of the staff who will likely get the start Thursday afternoon against St. Edward’s University in the opening round of the South Central Regional in San Angelo, Texas. A trip to the Division II World Series is on the line in the six-team tourney. The Mavericks (44-10) enter as the No. 2 seed.
“This is a big test. We know what we can do in the RMAC and against regional teams, too. Now it’s time, for lack of a better term, to just go let it hang out and go play.”
The four-man rotation has been solid all season, with Leahy on Friday, junior lefty Ramirez and McDermott, only a sophomore, on Saturday and senior Tyler Day on Sunday. The bullpen was in flux early, which is normal, trying to find the right combination.
After the first month of the season, Hanks decided to tinker with using Day as a Friday night closer because Leahy was giving them seven or eight solid innings, and then bringing him back to start on Sunday.
“He likes the role, he was good at it,” Hanks said. “He enjoyed the opportunity to be on tap to pitch every single day rather than wait all weekend or pitch and sit around all weekend, but he’s still a viable consideration for a Game 4 to win a regional as a starter. We’ll just see what happens. Tyler has made a big difference.”
Day threw so well out of the bullpen, he earned the closer role. He only has three saves, mainly because he hasn’t had to pitch in a lot of save situations. In 13 relief appearances he’s struck out 25 and walked only one, allowing three runs on eight hits in 19 innings. He has 57 strikeouts and only seven walks all season.
Mielock, who missed last season after Tommy John surgery, was getting stronger, so he took some Sunday starts. Tyler Prokopis had two solid outings in spot starts late, and lefties Eli Thornquist and Jett Wodiuk became reliable stoppers, whether it was a one-batter situation or a couple of innings.
It all clicked.
The Mavericks rattled off 22 straight wins, a school record, and cruised to their sixth consecutive RMAC regular-season title.
Pitchers on this staff have that dream combination of location and velocity, with 454 strikeouts in 54 games (8.4 per game) and 136 walks (2.5 per game). They keep the fielders happy by throwing ground balls and routine fly balls, getting them off the field quickly so they can go hit.
The three front-line starters are a combined 27-3 (Leahy is 11-0 with a 1.21 ERA), and as a staff, the Mavericks have a 3.42 ERA, a full 4.0 points lower than their opponents. Teams hit .233 against them, and they’ve given up 35 home runs in 54 games.
Leahy didn’t give up a home run until the conference tourney, when he surrendered two to Regis, but that just got him fired up. He struck out 11 in a complete-game three-hitter that saved the bullpen for later in the tournament, especially after McDermott followed it with his eight-inning stint against CSU-Pueblo.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself, but just a year of adjustment and being a year older helped,” Leahy said of his sensational sophomore season. “I just came back more comfortable. I had a good summer and there are still developments to be made. I can always get better and always help us win more.”
That’s all Hanks can ask of the staff that he said might be the best he’s ever had at Mesa.
“It arguably is, top to bottom, and potentially can be even better than they have been,” Hanks said. “They’ve given us a chance to win every game this year. We’re real proud of them and still want to push them and see if they can do more.”