Texas State coach Ty Harrington knew it would be a challenge to replace two-time Southland Conference pitcher of the year Carson Smith this spring. But in some ways, he thought his 2012 pitching staff had a chance to be even better.
"We lost Carson Smith, and anytime you lose somebody of that quality you wonder who's going to replace him," Harrington said. "We felt like we have more depth on the mound, and thought we had a chance to match people up as games went on, which we haven't been able to do in the past. To be honest with you, our bullpen's been as good as our starters have been."
That's saying something, because the starters have been otherworldly. Texas State's pitching staff is riding an incredible streak into tonight's midweek showdown against No. 5 Rice: The Bobcats have recorded a school-record five consecutive shutouts. Their scoreless streak stands at 50 1/3 innings, within shouting range of the NCAA record of 64 straight set by Arizona State in 1978. The streak has helped Texas State get of to an 8-3 start and jump to No. 21 in the Baseball America rankings.
"It makes coaching a lot easier when you're throwing up zeroes, I'll tell you that," Harrington said.
Texas State's three weekend starters—junior lefthander Colten Turner (1-0, 0.44, 23-9 K-BB in 20 IP), junior righty Travis Ballew (3-0, 1.33, 23-8 K-BB in 20 IP) and sophomore righty Kyle Finnegan (3-0, 0.47, 22-8 K-BB in 19 IP)—have been nothing short of superb. All three overmatched Notre Dame club this weekend, with Ballew striking out 11 in a three-hit shutout and Finnegan following with 12 strikeouts over seven innings of three-hit work.
The two righthanders have seen their velocity jump under pitching coach Derek Matlock's new and improved throwing program. Harrington said Ballew sat in the 90-95 mph range on Saturday, and Finnegan was 90-94.
"I say this proudly, but also I think it's true: None of these guys were drafted guys coming out of high school," Harrington said. "All these guys had good arms, but I think they're a product of what we do here when we develop our pitchers. Derek over the last year and a half, two years, has developed his own program that he feels very confident in, and so do the players."
Ballew and Finnegan are both smallish righties (listed at 6-foot, 160 pounds and 6-foot-1, 165, respectively) who have learned to harness big stuff. Both feature power breaking balls in the low 80s that they can throw for strikes or use as chase pitches. Both have done a good job incorporating two-seamers, and both have improved their changeups.
Turner, though, is the leader of the staff after going 9-2, 4.33 in the weekend rotation a year ago. Moving up to the Friday job was natural for the 6-2, 185-pound southpaw, and he has handled it with aplomb. Like Ballew, Turner has made especially good progress with his changeup, which he can throw to lefthanded hitters as well as righty. That gives him a third weapon to complement his 88-92 fastball and improved breaking ball.
It helps, too, that the Bobcats have a senior bulldog for a midweek starter, because Texas State plays quite a few important RPI games against regional foes, such as tonight's showdown against Rice and last week's 1-0 win at Texas Christian. Pitts threw six innings of scoreless, one-hit ball in that one.
"He's a senior, he's won for us before, an 88-90 sinkerball guy who commands three pitches that he commands at any moment," Harrington said. "He can pitch backwards, do what he wants. He's the ultimate competitor."
And Texas State has played great defense behind its arms. Harrington said his defense made four or five plays that he would consider above-average this past weekend.
It has all added up to produce the remarkable scoreless streak—but that will be tested tonight.
"The focus this bunch has been playing with has been fun to watch," Harrington said. "This has been a nice run to be a part of, but it is just the beginning of the season."
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