David Pierce was ready for a new challenge, and a change of scenery.
A Houston native, Pierce played college ball at the University of Houston, coached at three high schools in the Houston area, spent six years as the Astros' batting practice pitcher, and spent the last nine years as an assistant coach at Rice. He loves his hometown, and he loved working for and learning from College Hall of Fame coach Wayne Graham, an experience that prepared him well to be a college head coach.
"I was excited to get out of Houston—I'd been there my entire life. I was ready to move on," Pierce said. "I've been very thankful and pleased that I've gotten the opportunity to do it."
That opportunity came when Mark Johnson retired as the head coach at Sam Houston State (located in Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston) after last season. The Bearkats hired Pierce, and he hit the ground running, building upon Johnson's solid foundation.
SHSU has had plenty of success in recent years, winning the Southland Conference tournament in 2007, '08 and '09 to make regionals. But the Bearkats hadn't experienced the kind of regular-season success they have under Pierce, who has guided them to a 23-9 record and a spot in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time ever. More importantly, SHSU is No. 27 in the NCAA's official RPI report, meaning it is in great shape to contend for an at-large bid to regionals even if it fails to win the conference's automatic bid. The Southland conference sent two teams to regionals in 2009, but it's nearly always a one-bid league.
"This is unchartered waters for a lot of people in this conference," Pierce said. "We need to work as hard as we can and not depend on that (conference) tournament. That's the voodoo—you never know what will happen."
Sam Houston State has seized control over its own destiny by racking up seven quality wins against teams inside the RPI top 50. The Bearkats opened the season with a huge series win against San Diego and later asserted themselves as the Southland favorite by sweeping Texas State (which had been ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the meeting). Last week, the Bearkats won a big midweek game at Rice, then swept Northwestern State to run their winning streak to 12, and climb into the rankings at No. 24. At 13-2 in the conference, SHSU has a four-game lead over the second-place Demons.
"It's been talked about around here," Pierce said of the national attention his program is starting to receive. "People are very excited . . . We've always felt we had a shot on the weekends because we've got three pretty good starting pitchers. Going into the fall, we looked at some really young kids that are just hungry. I think the turning point was that opening weekend against San Diego, realizing what kind of team they are, knowing they're going to do well in that conference. That was a great boost for our guys."
The Bearkats have a balanced club, with the ability to win games with their pitching (as they have over the last four games, allowing just 2.75 runs per game) or their hitting (as they did over the four previous games, when they averaged 13.5 runs per game).
Those three starting pitchers Pierce mentioned all have power stuff. Heading into the year, Pierce thought sophomore lefties Cody Dickson and Caleb Smith might be the key to his team's success: if they could continue to improve their command, they had a chance to be very good.
Friday starter Dickson (3-2, 2.36 with 33 strikeouts and 23 walks in 46 innings) has been up-and-down with his ability to throw strikes, partly because his tight curveball has so much depth that sometimes it is hard to command. His fastball sits in the 88-92 range and bumps 93-94, and he mixes in an occasional changeup.
Smith (4-2, 2.52, 45-22 K-BB in 50 IP) has "really taken his stuff to another level" as a sophomore, Piece said. Recently he has worked in the 90-94 range, topping out at 95, with a workable slider and a very good changeup, Pierce said.
The Sunday starter, fifth-year senior Justin Jackson (6-2, 3.02, 34-16 K-BB in 45 IP), also has a big arm. The righthander has made a good recovery from Tommy John surgery, working in the 88-92 range against Northwestern State and commanding both his slider and curveball. His changeup is his fourth pitch.
The Bearkats also have a pair of reliable, experienced bullpen anchors in senior righty Michael Oros (4-0, 1.91) and junior righty Michael Burchett (1-1, 3.07). Oros doesn't have an overpowering fastball (87-89), but he keeps hitters off balance with a solid three-pitch mix. Burchett, whose arm slot had been dropped by the previous coaching staff to increase his deception, jumped out to Pierce for his arm strength in the fall, so Pierce decided to move his slot back to high three-quarters. As a result, his velocity jumped from the 82-85 range into the 87-91 range, and he mixes a very good changeup and a slider.
"I told him, 'You may not have as much deception, but you'll have more on the ball and you still have great feel for the two-seam.' There is more room for error because of the velocity," Pierce said.
The new coaching staff also deserves credit for bringing in its starting shortstop at a late juncture—after the coaching change this summer. Pierce remembered seeing Corey Toups at College Park High in the Woodlands, but Toups' smallish frame kept him from getting heavily recruited, and he was planning to walk on at Texas State.
"He was one of the first guys I got in touch with when I got the job," Pierce said. "We took him as a shortstop and told him he's not an 'infielder,' he's 'the shortstop.' He had some lulls early on, but he's really toughened up. He's a really good athlete—not a big kid but has great range. He really has improved going to his right and is very good going to his left. The arm is good, and he turns the double play really well."
Another freshman, Colt Atwood (.336/.382/.393, seven steals), has been "a godsend," as Pierce put it, providing a spark atop the lineup and playing outstanding defense in center field.
The Bearkats have a nice blend of exciting young players and mature veterans in the lineup. Catcher John Hale—who started his collegiate career with Pierce at Rice and even caught two innings in the College World Series—is an athletic defender who handles the pitchers well. Pierce calls him the foundation of the staff and the infield.
Another upperclassman, Kevin Miller (.333/.365/.407), is one of the best defensive third baseman Pierce has ever coached, he said. He also has hit the ball with much more authority this year. Senior outfielder Jake Arrington (.365/.415/.583) has taken an even bigger step forward offensively thanks to his dramatically improved control of the strike zone. Pierce said he has great bat speed and can really drive the ball.
SHSU isn't a powerful team, as Arrington and sophomore DH/catcher Anthony Azar are tied for the team lead with two homers apiece. But Pierce has been pleased with the competitiveness of his team's at-bats up and down the lineup, which has a dangerous centerpiece in Azar (.434/.462/.632 with nine doubles and 32 RBIs). A thumb injury has kept Azar from spelling Hale behind the plate, but it certainly hasn't affected his hitting.
"He is a very determined young man that has plus bat speed and can really hit," Pierce said of Azar. "He's a force when he comes to home plate. He looks to drive in runs, and he's been pretty successful doing it of late."
The Bearkats as a whole have been pretty successful of late. Their combination of quality arms, strong defense, timely hitting and great coaching has them on course to get back into regionals this June, whether they win the Southland tournament or not.
Comments will be monitored prior to being added to the site. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be rejected. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed.
We have chosen to open up commenting to everyone, so comment away! We want to hear from each and every one of you! Leave a comment.
About This Blog
Syndicate This Blog
Search This Blog