Simmons Stakes Claim As West Coast's Top Righty
RIVERSIDE, Calif.—Underneath the brim of James Simmons' UC Riverside hat, three phrases are written in black marker.
Focus On The Glove.
"I didn't start doing this until this summer," says the 6-foot-4 righthander. "The 'Focus On The Glove,' I just find that sometimes I try to overthrow, or I lose focus on what I'm supposed to be doing that pitch and that hitter, so if I ever get in trouble I just take it off and look at that and it will bring me back to where I need to be."
The Hitter Means Nothing.
"That's just something that helps me pitch inside," he says. "I don't like to pay attention to who's in the box. I look where their feet are, where they're moving, if they're cheating on pitches, stuff like that, but I don't like to dwell on who's hitting. That guy doesn't mean anything to me, I just try to focus on what I've got to do."
You Own The Game.
"And this," he says, pointing to the final slogan, "this is something I don't even know why I put in there. I guess it's just a confidence booster."
At this point in the conversation, Cal State Fullerton coach George Horton walks by and interrupts with another confidence booster. "Way to go, big man," Horton tells Simmons.
Minutes earlier, Simmons had closed out a complete-game, seven-strikeout performance in a 3-2 win against the Titans and ace Wes Roemer. The duel between two of the top college righthanders in the junior class had been tied at 1-1 heading into the ninth inning, when the Titans scraped across a run against Simmons on a safety squeeze. Riverside answered with two against Roemer in the bottom of the frame and went on to sweep the series and claim a share of first place in the Big West Conference.
"Had we not won there, that was going to be it for Simmons, and I guarantee it would have been a brawl to pull him out of there, because he wanted to match Roemer pitch for pitch," Highlanders coach Doug Smith said. "James is a pretty laid-back guy except when he pitches. He's got a good sense of humor, he's a good guy, a great teammate, but on the days he pitches he's a selfish dude. He's going to go out and compete."
That's exactly what Simmons has done since the day he stepped on the UC Riverside campus. He was the Highlanders' Opening Day starter in his first collegiate game, and that might be the last time the unflappable Simmons has felt any jitters.
"The nerves were definitely flowing," Simmons recalls. "I can remember, it was at Santa Clara, and I was out there, my back leg was shaking a little bit. As a freshman thrown out there in college against guys that are seniors and juniors, that's about all I can remember is there were some nerves going."
Even as a skinny 190-pound freshman, Simmons was a bona fide ace, going 3-1, 2.95 with a win at Oregon State before losing his eligibility due to academics. He pulled that off with a fastball in the 87-89 mph range and without a reliable changeup. Since then, Simmons has put on about 20 pounds and seen his fastball velocity climb into the 89-93 range, sitting at 90-91. His fastball command has always been a strength but is now impeccable.
But Simmons truly elevated his game to the next level in the summer of 2006, when he played for Cotuit of the Cape Cod League. Kettleers coach Mike Roberts emphasized a fastball-changeup attack, and Simmons says Roberts forced him to throw the change. As a result, the pitch developed into a true above-average offering that he can throw to both lefthanded and righthanded batters.
Though the fastball and changeup are Simmons' bread and butter, he also throws a slider and a curveball that he says are mostly show pitches. He doesn't like to throw the slow, looping curveball very often because it comes out of a different arm slot, and he believes it is easy to recognize once the batter has seen it a few times. But he still managed to get a few outs with it against the Titans.
"He's got a big ol' looper that he'll throw in there, and he'll freeze you with it," Smith said. "It's big, it eats up a lot of ground, and it's just such a shock to your eyes when you get it."
After the game, Simmons shocked a few more eyes by signing autographs by the Riverside dugout—with his left hand.
"I basically do everything lefthanded except play baseball," Simmons says. "I don't know how that happened. Everything that has to do with a swing I do righthanded, but I write lefthanded, I eat lefthanded, I kick lefthanded, I do everything else lefthanded. I don't know how that came about. My grandpa's lefthanded, I think my dad just threw the glove on this hand and said, 'Let's go.' I really should have been a lefty."
Had he turned out a southpaw, Simmons might have gone in the top five or 10 picks of the draft this June. As it is, he's all but a lock to go in the first round and could be the second four-year college righty taken after North Carolina State's Andrew Brackman. Most scouts give Simmons a slight edge over Roemer and Pepperdine's Barry Enright because Simmons can match their precision command but also has some projection left in his frame and a smooth, easy arm action. Smith thinks Simmons will throw in the 93-95 range two years from now. Of course, he's done just fine with the velocity he's got now; with the win against Fullerton, Simmons improved to 9-2, 2.05 on the season with 87 strikeouts and 11 walks in 87 innings. He's now 21-8 in his three-year college career, and he's played a major part in UCR's emergence as a top-25-caliber program.
"He's been a vital part of our program, and we'll really miss him when he leaves," Smith says. "Hopefully we can ride him for a few more weeks here."