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2005 Freshman of the Year: Joe Savery
by Aaron Fitt
Forget for a moment that he led the Western Athletic Conference in batting while simultaneously finishing second in the league in ERA. The numbers alone were more than enough to earn Joe Savery Baseball America's Freshman of the Year honors, but they cannot quantify Savery's full value to Rice.
Consider the Owls' super-regional matchup with No. 1 Tulane. In the first inning of the first game, Savery (playing first base) slammed his right wrist into a fence chasing after a foul pop. Later it was discovered that he broke a metacarpal bone in the middle of his hand, but the Owls didn't know that at the time, and they wanted him in the lineup. When he came to bat in the second inning, Rice coach Wayne Graham asked Savery if he could bat, and Savery said he could not. Graham told him to bunt.
"I laid down my first successful drag bunt," Savery said. "I don't know how that happened, but I don’t think it'll ever happen again."
The bunt drove in a run, giving Rice a comfortable 6-0 cushion and allowing Graham to take Savery out of the game in the third inning. Not that Savery's weekend was over--broken right hand or not.
The lefthander took some painkiller and made his scheduled start the next day. And for six innings, he was masterful, holding Tulane's explosive offense scoreless on a pair of hits. The Green Wave pushed across a run against him in the seventh before piling on against the Rice bullpen in the ninth, making Savery the hard-luck loser in a terrific pitcher's duel against Micah Owings, another two-way standout.
Maybe it would have turned out differently if Savery's bat had been available in the late innings that Sunday (though he normally did not bat in games he pitched), or in Rice's 9-6 loss Monday that eliminated the Owls one win shy of reaching the College World Series.
"Obviously on Sunday, in a 1-0 game until the ninth inning, I wanted to get in there and give it a shot," Savery said. "I lost three or four one-run games this year, and as a competitor, you just want to help as much as you can."
It's safe to say Savery helped the Owls as much as he possibly could have this year, whether by compiling an 8-5, 2.43 record on the mound with a league-leading 129 strikeouts in 119 innings, or by hitting .382-5-43 at the plate, or by laying down a bunt because he was too hurt to swing. Savery, the Western Athletic Conference player of the year, played a major role in stabilizing a Rice program that lost the core of its 2003 national championship team after last season--including righthanders Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend, three of the top eight picks in the 2004 draft. For fulfilling that role so well, he’s Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year.
Delivering When It Counts
Savery’s talents on the mound were on display most in the postseason. He limited host Louisiana State to one run in 7 1/3 strong innings in a regional start for a victory. As Savery tired in the game, he relied less upon his 88-93 mph fastball that touches 95, less upon his occasionally inconsistent but often above-average curveball, and more upon his changeup.
"He dominated because of his changeup," Graham said. “He's got the three pitches I think he'll pitch his career with. For him it's about consistency and command. He doesn't walk a lot of people, but there's a difference between not walking people and having great command."
Before he threw a pitch for Rice, Savery was regarded as a potential first-round draft choice out of Lamar High, near Houston. As a freshman at Lamar, Savery reached the varsity team as a DH and was teammates that season with Niemann, who told him he could compete at that level. As a sophomore, Savery began proving Niemann prophetic. One game in particular sticks out to Savery, in the Astrodome against undefeated Elkins High, led by current Dodgers prospect James Loney.
"I got the ball that night, and we beat 'em, and it was pretty incredible," Savery said. "We were just an average team--I think we had 11 or 12 losses--and since that night I felt like I could hang with some of the top talent."
Around that time, Savery started to realize his future might be in baseball, even though football was his first love. When it came time to choose a college, Niemann helped steer the academically minded Savery to Rice.
"I did talk to him before committing," Savery said. "All my family's from Mississippi, so I didn't have any ties in Texas--I didn't grow up with 'Gig 'em' or 'Hook 'em' or any of that, so I was really open with my college decision. I felt like Rice was good, and he told me a bunch of good things."
His commitment caused Savery to drop to the Dodgers in the 15th round of the 2004 draft, and they made minimal effort to sign him. Now he looks like a probable first-round pick when he's eligible for the draft again in two years. The only question will be whether his future is still on the mound, because by then the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Savery's bat might catch up with his arm. For now, though, he will pitch exclusively at Team USA trials, while he waits for his hand to heal.
"I think the sky's the limit," Graham said. "He's got a great delivery, he's very healthy and competitive. Anything can happen. We visualize a tremendous future and long career for him."