The Finisher

Stoffel brings fastballs and fear to the ninth inning




When Jason Stoffel takes the mound in a close game, with AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" blaring in the background, his face is the picture of intensity, framed by a thick, red goatee. No closer in the nation is more feared than Arizona's flamethrowing junior righthander, the school's all-time saves leader with 23.

Put Stoffel in any other situation, and he couldn't be more mild-mannered.

"If you asked him to shave his chin, and you were to sit at the bus stop with him, the last thing you'd think is he's a guy that likes to be out there with the game on the line," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "It's really kind of a unique thing, because off the field you're not going to get more than two or three words out of him. He's not a very talkative, outgoing guy—he's very reserved. You'll see him sitting around reading books about the Russian Revolution.
But he really has a different personality when he gets on the field. Boy oh boy, get him on the mound in the late innings—he's not a madman out there, but he's definitely got some adrenaline going, just oozing competitiveness."

Lopez has to call pitches at a breakneck pace because Stoffel works so quickly. The adrenaline takes over, and everything around Stoffel just seems to fade into the background.

"It doesn't feel like much, actually. I'm pretty good at blocking stuff out," Stoffel said. "I feel like I get into a pretty focused state when there's runners on or I'm coming into a tight game. There's not a whole lot of buzz going around."

Stoffel has dominated since his 2006 freshman year (he is 9-2, 2.25 with an absurd 165-32 strikeout walk ratio in 112 career innings), but throughout his Arizona career he has occasionally gotten knocked around when he entered games with a comfortable cushion. It's not that his concentration lapses, exactly—if anything, Stoffel said, he concentrates even more. But pressure just flips a switch in him and elevates him to another level.

"He pitches better with a game on the line than he does with a four-run lead. Put him in that situation, and he doesn't look as crisp or as sharp," Lopez said. "If you watch him in a bullpen, and you'll walk away and say, 'That's not bad. I saw a few pitches that were pretty good.'"

Watch him in the ninth inning of a tight game, and you'll see a plus fastball that regularly reaches 94-95 mph and a plus 78-81 mph curveball with vicious 10-to-4 break. He's confident enough in both to throw either in any count.

"Only having two pitches, I don't have a lot to choose from, so I have to make sure the two I have are pretty good," Stoffel said.

Like many prep stars with big-time fastballs, Stoffel arrived at Arizona from Agoura (Calif.) High with underdeveloped secondary stuff. His curveball was mostly a get-me-over pitch even during his standout freshman year. Even so, Stoffel got a shot at the closer job after lefthander Daniel Schlereth injured his oblique muscle in a game against Arizona State at Chase Field in 2007. Stoffel proved such a cool customer that Lopez just left him in the role.
At the end of that season, Stoffel told Lopez he preferred to spend his summer resting and working on conditioning back home in California, rather than playing summer ball in the Cape Cod League or anywhere else. Lopez told Stoffel what he needed to work on to take his game to the next level.

"I told him, 'The reports are out now, you're not a hidden commodity, people are going to be geared to your fastball. If you roll out a breaking ball with lower arm speed, it's not going to be an out pitch,'" Lopez said. "He's a brilliant young man, an academic genius sometimes. It's easy to talk to him about those things. In essence, he grasps the information you give him very quickly and makes adjustments on the spot. So it was very easy after his freshman year."

Stoffel returned to Tucson equipped with a true power breaking ball and racked up 13 saves as a sophomore. He was so good that a pair of first-round picks—Schlereth and Ryan Perry—served as his twin setup men.

Once again, Stoffel spent his summer at home (turning down a chance to pitch for Team USA), running, working out, reading and spending time with his family. When he returned in the fall, the Wildcats were faced with a dilemma: how best to deploy Stoffel now that most of their veteran pitchers were gone?

"I knew what we'd be missing with all the arms that signed out of this past draft," Lopez said. "I went up to Jason and said, 'What do you think about maybe starting if we can find that guy at the end?' Quite candidly, he didn't want any part of that starting role. He said he would do it if absolutely necessary, but he likes to be in that closing situation. Whoever takes him in pro baseball will have a guy who really enjoys being in there with the game on the line in the eighth and ninth innings."

Major league scouting directors clearly agree, and they voted the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Stoffel onto the preseason All-America first team as a reliever. The Wildcats opted to leave him in the pen but expand his role so that he pitches six or seven innings of relief per weekend, similar to the way they used Mark Melancon. Arizona is relying on a number of freshman arms after senior ace Preston Guilmet, and getting to Stoffel has sometimes been a challenge. But Stoffel is doing his part: Through 11 appearances, he is 0-0, 1.31 with 31 strikeouts, four walks and 12 hits allowed in 21 innings.

This weekend against Michigan, Stoffel was in one of those zones—Lopez calls it "a little bit of a different world". He entered with a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning Friday with a runner on second base and no outs, and he proceeded to strike out four over three scoreless innings of one-hit ball. Then on Saturday, Stoffel closed out another two-run victory by striking out all five batters he faced.

"He just exudes a lot of confidence," said one talent evaluator who saw Stoffel against the Wolverines. "He threw three innings and he came back and looked better the second day. They feel like they're a different team when he comes in, I'm sure. He's a true closer in college baseball."