McCulloch Emerges As Longhorns Leader
Junior righthander aims to guide young staff to a fifth straight trip to Omaha
AUSTIN, Texas--Admittedly, Kyle McCulloch was nervous. Really nervous.
His emotions were a bit jangled, his throat a little scratchy. He’d almost sweated through his uniform. His head pounded as he checked out the pressure-filled situation and knew his team was counting on him.
The Texas righthander, a preseason All-American and the bona fide ace of one of the strongest rotations in college baseball, was all but becoming unraveled.
He was, uh, pinch-running.
“That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been at the University of Texas,” McCulloch said with a laugh. “I think I had one foot off the bag, leading off first. I just didn’t want to get picked off. Everybody gave me a hard time. I scored after a base hit, a walk and another base hit. I went station to station.”
The junior righthander has a much higher comfort level at keeping other people off the bases. McCulloch was out of his element that March day against Long Beach State, but stick him in more accustomed surroundings and he is as composed and collected a player as Texas coach Augie Garrido has ever seen.
Were he not, McCulloch would not be 8-4, 2.98 and poised to return Texas to the College World Series for the fifth straight season.
Garrido recognizes the worth of his stopper and knows his team wouldn’t be approaching the NCAA postseason as a potential top eight national seed if his star pitcher weren’t so resilient and reliable. He had to be to weather a disappointing 1-4 record after his first seven starts.
McCulloch bore up in spectacular fashion despite troubles among his fellow starters, including an elbow injury to Randy Boone that sidelined him more than a month and subpar seasons by Adrian Alaniz and Kenny Kasparek.
He’s been hurt himself, suffering shots to his heel on Opening Day and again in the foot in early May. “I’ll start going out in shin guards, I guess,” he said.
In addition, McCulloch no longer had trusty, veteran catcher Taylor Teagarden behind the plate to both call the game and block bad pitches and was without the support of defensive stars David Maroul--last year’s CWS MVP--and, because of injuries early on, first baseman Chance Wheeless.
“He went through as heavy a load as any pitcher could this season,” Garrido said. “His won-lost record didn’t reveal his potential. After being a preseason All-American and getting off to a slow start, he had every chance to (melt down). But he just slides it into a (mental) folder somewhere. I think he’s just about ready to pitch for the Yankees.”
McCulloch was the winning pitcher in the Longhorns’ victory against Florida last June, striking out a career-high eight in 62⁄3 innings to nail down the school’s sixth national title and second in four years.
Later in the summer, he went 4-0 with Team USA, threw in the national team’s only victory against Japan and struck out seven and allowed one run in eight innings against Nicaragua.
McCulloch is still advancing station to station but he has clearly raised his station in life.
Many considered him a sure first-round draft pick, something his pitching coach validates. One major league general manager said he has received great reports on McCulloch and said some teams might try to hope in vain that he will slide out of the first round because he doesn’t have an overpowering fastball and huge strikeout totals.
“He may be the best four-pitch pitcher in America,” Texas pitching coach Tom Holliday said. “If there is a concern, it’s that he doesn’t pitch at 93 or 94 miles per hour. But he can hold his velocity at 91 or 92 from first pitch to last. That’s probably one of the most unnoticed things about him.”
McCulloch has always had the four pitches but has enhanced his straight changeup and developed enough confidence in the pitch that he is throwing it to righthanded batters as well as left. A baseball camp counselor taught him the pitch several summers ago when he started throwing it during long toss.
He will throw the changeup to any batter at any time in the count. At no time did he rely on it more than his start at Mississippi in a super-regional final that returned Texas to Omaha. “I threw it and threw it and threw it,” he said.
By Holliday’s count, McCulloch throws it 40 percent of the time. That and an inner strength that rarely deserts him have combined to make him one of college baseball’s top pitchers. By his own admission, he does not consider himself a strikeout pitcher, although that is by design. He has struck out just 75 in 94 innings, but even that serves as evidence of his maturity. Holliday convinced him that the better pitchers keep their pitch count low and stay in games longer.
“I feel I can strike out a guy when I need it,” he said. “You can strike out 10 and go five innings or you can strike out four and go for eight.”
Because he doesn’t appear to be an overpowering pitcher, some may lose sight of his vast potential. He had won seven decisions in a row since losing 2-1 to Texas Tech. Because of his mental strength and unflappability, the Longhorns coaches seriously considered using him as the closer to replace J. Brent Cox until settling on lefty Austin Wood, one of nine freshmen pitchers on the staff.
The coaches still talk about McCulloch’s fluid, rhythmic style, which was on full exhibit against Florida in the clinching CWS game.
“We all talked about how easy he made it look,” Holliday said. “In his sophomore year, he’d hit a wall (after a mistake) and not come off it. Now his anger lasts about 20 seconds, by the time he picks up the rosin bag.
“He’s just relaxed and low-key. By next September in 2007, he should be in the big leagues.”
Maybe then he’ll be nervous again.Kirk Bohls writes for the Austin American-Statesman