After strong Omaha performance, White tries for encore
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—He'll always have Omaha.
Over three magical games in the 2008 College World Series, North Carolina righthander Alex White created a memory for the ages. First he held the nation's hottest offense, Louisiana State, to three runs over seven innings in UNC's CWS opener. Two games later, with the Tar Heels facing LSU again in an elimination game, White entered in relief and wriggled out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam to keep the score tied 3-3. He pitched two scoreless innings to set the stage of UNC's dramatic ninth-inning win.
A day later, the Tar Heels called on White again, and he threw 2 2⁄3 perfect innings of relief, striking out five against Fresno State to earn his record-tying third win of the CWS.
"I had not seen a better clutch performance," UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said of White's Omaha stint. "He was unbelievable, and he almost gave us a shot to get back to that championship series. There's no doubt, you go to that place with 30,000 screaming fans, and you play LSU and you sit people down back to back days and you beat them in a start as well, it's nice to be able to revert back to that, and say, 'I've been on the biggest stage.' Even when he's struggled, he can say there's nothing that's going to be bigger than that stage."
So when White, a first-team preseason All-American, got off to a slow start as a junior this spring, there was no cause for alarm. After all, he started slow in 2008, too, and by the end of the season he was the nation's most dominant pitcher.
"I'd rather have it late than early," Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. "I don't know if it's weather or trying to do too much, too early—you know, all this hype. Maybe he was just not throwing good pitches. I think the weather probably has something to do with it; obviously guys like to throw in warm weather and build up that sweat."
One scouting director who saw White throw early this season said he "wasn't super-impressed" by White's stuff, consistency or command. Forbes and White both chalked up many of the struggles to mechanics. White had a tendency to drop his arm slot and sling the ball across his body, which caused his location to be off and his stuff to flatten out. He's worked hard on returning to a high three-quarters slot, and his stuff has improved dramatically. He sat at 93-94 for nine innings and touched 95 repeatedly in a one-hit shutout against Miami on April 17. More importantly, his command has improved.
"I've been able to place my fastball a lot better," White said. "Early in the season, I couldn't throw a glove-side fastball to save my life. Now I can throw it to both sides. I went back to trying to throw everything over the top, and it definitely helped me throw every pitch for a strike. It definitely helped my split: that was something I was throwing out there at 81-82 to start the season, and now I just kind of rear back and throw that thing, and I'm getting it up there about 86-88."
The split-finger has become White's go-to out pitch, especially against lefties. His freshman year, White's slider was his best secondary pitch, but he struggled to throw a straight changeup, so he began throwing the splitter a month into his sophomore year. It's now an above-average offering, and he's even begun to throw it against righthanded hitters. That's become somewhat of a necessity as his slider has regressed, but he has also added a 90 mph two-seam fastball that bores in on righties.
"Adding that (split) in and developing a little two-seam fastball has definitely helped me mature into a much better pitcher," White said.
White was 7-1, 3.36 with 77 strikeouts and 26 walks through his first 70 innings this year. He has emerged as a strong candidate to go in the top five or 10 overall picks of the draft in June. White has blossomed into a more complete pitcher than he ever was before, and scouts don't seem overly concerned about his inconsistent slider, which flashes plus at times but is below-average at others.
"I like him and think he projects well," one area scout said. "He has a plus arm—that's simple to see—good secondary stuff, and good spin. A very important part of our job is not just see a curve or slider but to see what kind of spin he has on it. A guy could have great spin but his release could be horrible or he dips, and that's easy to fix. Alex has good tight spin and his makeup and resume speak volumes."
White is unflappable on the mound, and his presence has a calming influence on not only his teammates, but also on his coaches.
"Alex has this persona and this mentality and quietness about him, it helps the rest of us," Fox said. "I don't know if it helps him, but it helps the rest of us when he comes in and he just looks like, 'Don't worry; I got it.' He's quiet, he doesn't get rattled, and nothing fazes him. Like against Miami, he's throwing the best game of his career, you want him to smile or jump up and down or be happy, it's just not him. I think that's a great mentality to have, and he has it."