Arizona's Kurt Heyer Has Something To Prove
Kurt Heyer just wanted to pitch.
When the righthander arrived on Arizona's campus in the fall of 2009, Heyer was determined not to just sit on the sidelines and observe. College coaches generally don't like having freshmen doing too much heavy lifting, but Heyer immediately set himself apart with his focus and ability to command the strike zone. He showed he deserved a starting role.
"I wanted to prove myself," Heyer said. "I didn't want to be one of those guys that just sat back and got the bench warm. I just wanted to prove that a freshman could come in here and make an impact on a program."
Wildcats head coach Andy Lopez and his staff originally had Heyer slotted in as their Sunday starter heading into 2010, with the idea that he could move up to Saturdays if everything went well. However, midway through Heyer's first fall, the coaches came to a realization: "Heyer's our best guy," Lopez said.
When presumptive Friday starter Kyle Simon injured his back a week before 2010 opening day, Heyer moved up to the No. 1 role and went 7-4, 3.26, making the freshman All-America team. Even though Simon eventually returned to action, Heyer couldn't be budged from the Friday role. He's never given it up since.
Heyer relishes the challenge of facing the other team's ace every week. At one point last season, he pitched against first-round picks in consecutive starts. He beat UCLA's Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, on April 15 and took a close loss to Oregon's Tyler Anderson, the eventual No. 20 pick, a week later. He also dueled Stanford's Mark Appel, a favorite to go No. 1 overall in 2012, to a scoreless draw through nine innings on May 20.
Heyer finished his sophomore campaign 8-5, 2.41, ranking second in the Pacific-10 Conference in strikeouts (134) and fifth in ERA.
"It always comes down to pitching, because whoever can execute their pitches better is always going to prevail," Heyer said. "I always like going against top arms because I just want to show I can stick with those guys inning for inning."
Heyer came to Arizona as primarily a two-pitch pitcher, relying mostly on his fastball and slider. Those two offerings were enough for him to get by the last two years, but going into his junior year, when he'll be facing many of the same hitters for the second or third season, Heyer wanted to expand his repertoire.
Pitching in the Cape Cod League last summer, Heyer worked on developing his changeup and curveball. He's sharpened his slider as well, but it's the changeup that has made the most progress.
"He came in as a two-pitch guy, and I really do believe he's going to leave here as a three-pitch guy," Lopez said. "He's done a marvelous job, because that third pitch (the changeup) sometimes is his second-best pitch, which is a statement to him. There are some days where we just go fastball-changeup with him."
Heyer's fastball generally doesn't overpower opposing hitters, though he can occasionally dial it up to the low 90s. Instead, Heyer thrives on locating and changing speeds, adding and subtracting from his heater as circumstances dictate.
Heyer's mentality on the mound suits his skill set perfectly. He embraces fighting mental battles with opposing hitters, imposing his will on them. Lopez speaks of how Heyer always has a plan, on and off the field. Heyer himself senses the growth he's made on the mental side of pitching, in his ability to set up hitters and move on if he makes a mistake.
"Knowing how to recuperate from a bad pitch, I wasn't able to do that in high school," Heyer said. "I'd always get down on myself and I wouldn't be able to bounce back, but now I can make a great pitch after a really bad one."
His intensity and work ethic have become well known around the Wildcats program. Lopez says Heyer routinely arrives at practices early and stays late, working on his mechanics out in the bullpen.
He's become a role model for the Wildcats' new arrivals.
"This past year, I made freshmen watch his bullpen," Lopez said. "Just his intensity, you'd think he's pitching in the biggest game of his life, and it's a September, October bullpen."
A Worthy Opponent
Heyer was coming off a seven-inning start against Long Beach State early last season when Rice, led by the country's best hitter, Anthony Rendon, came to Tucson for a two-game midweek series. Heyer was scheduled to throw a bullpen the day of the first game, but he had other ideas. Heyer smelled another challenge. He wanted Rendon.
"His words to me were, 'Coach, coach, I would much rather face Rice and face Rendon (than throw a bullpen),' " Lopez said. "He was intense, so we threw him."
Heyer only got one crack at Rendon but made the most of it, striking him out swinging to end the first inning. Heyer was pulled in the third inning for pitch-count reasons right before he would've faced Rendon again.
"(Rendon) was all hyped up, and I just wanted to prove I could get him out," Heyer said. "Thank God, I was able to strike him out. I just muttered walking off the mound, 'Yeah, take that.' He didn't hear me."
The Rice game wasn't Heyer's only midweek start last year, and he went on to lead the Pac-10 with 138 innings pitched, logging even more innings than UCLA's Trevor Bauer, who famously threw nine straight complete games to end the season. Lopez says Heyer shouldn't be asked to carry that much of a load again this year, though he'll continue as the Wildcats' Friday starter.
Heyer wasn't an unknown commodity when he came out of high school in Southern California. He pitched on the showcase circuit and drew interest from pro teams, but he made it clear he wanted to go to college and went undrafted.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys that you get drafted out of high school and then you're never heard from again," Heyer said.
Heading into his next draft year, Heyer knows that as a 6-foot-2 righthander without an above-average fastball, he does not jump off the page of a scouting report. That just gives him another challenge to meet.
"I've seen guys that have been picked, and I've never agreed with it," he said. "It kind of got me a little bit frustrated and pushed me even more because I wanted to show everybody I could be just as good as those guys."
And he has done just that.