High School Rivals Ervin, Irby Power Samford
Waste one. That's all Phillip Ervin was trying to do.
The righthander from Leroy High, pitching in the 2010 Alabama 2A state championship, was ahead in the count 0-2 against Mars Hill Bible's C.K. Irby. Ervin went to elevate his third pitch, but he didn't get it up enough. Irby squared the ball up and drove a home run.
"I threw two fastballs by him," Ervin recalls. "It was an 0-2 pitch. It was kind of a waste pitch, trying to get him to chase up high. It was in his eyes, and somehow he hit it and it got out."
The two players had never met before their clash in the state finals, but they knew they were about to become college teammates at Samford. So there have been plenty of chances to relive that moment over the last two years, much to the Ervin's chagrin.
Ervin is quick to point out that he struck out Irby the other three times they faced each other that day (Irby's memory of those at-bats is somehow fuzzier). Irby and Mars Hill went on to take the state title, denying Ervin's Leroy squad what would've been its third title in four years. There aren't any hard feelings, though, as they head into their junior seasons at Samford, and now that they're pulling on the same end of the rope, they've become catalysts for the Bulldogs' rising program.
The team has set school records for wins in each of the duo's first two seasons, with 37 in 2011 and then 41 a year ago. Last year's Bulldogs swept through the Southern Conference tournament for their first-ever SoCon title, then upset Southeastern Conference champion Mississippi State twice at the Tallahassee Regional in the program's first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
Ervin has mostly given up pitching as a collegian, but his tools at the plate and in center field have scouts keenly eyeing him for June's draft. By the end of last year, Ervin occupied the cleanup spot in the batting order, while he and Irby ranked third and second, respectively, on the team in batting. Meanwhile Irby, the everyday DH, also excelled in doubling as the Bulldogs' closer, posting 10 saves to go with a 2.06 ERA.
"Their statistics are huge for us, and we need them to have even better ones this year," Samford head coach Casey Dunn said. "But each of them in their own unique way has really added a lot to our program."
The Bulldogs plucked Ervin out of tiny Leroy, a town of less than 1,000 in the southwestern corner of Alabama. His small-town background might have made it easy for Ervin to fly under the radar for a while, but the Bulldogs were turned on to him all the way back in his freshman year.
Samford recruiting coordinator Tony David had gotten to know Ervin's coach at Leroy, Danny Powell, years earlier when David was an assistant high school coach in the area, and the two had stayed in touch. "Once Phillip got to high school," Dunn said, "(Powell) kept telling him, 'Hey, I got a really good guy down here.' So, we were aware of him early on."
Ervin also played basketball and football at Leroy, winning three state football titles in addition to two in baseball, but he tore a knee ligament playing football his senior year. The injury kept him on the shelf for most of the high school baseball season the next spring and likely contributed to his going undrafted.
"I only played like 18 games my senior year," Ervin said. "If I got to stay healthy and had a good year . . . the 18 games I did play, I played well. So if it could've went like that the whole year, maybe there's a chance of me getting drafted. I'm not real sure. We'll never know."
Things certainly haven't worked out too badly. Ervin stepped into the Bulldogs' lineup as a freshman and hit .371/.440/.516, making the 2011 Freshman All-America team. Still, he hit just four homers as a freshman. That pushed him to hit the weight room more diligently leading up to his sophomore campaign.
He already had the quick hands and bat speed to hit for power, and adding quality weight helped him amp up his production to 10 homers in the spring for the Bulldogs and then 11 over the summer for Harwich in the Cape Cod League. Ervin won Cape League MVP honors as the circuit's only player to reach double figures in homers and steals (10).
His average dropped to .327 last spring—still a strong figure in the BBCOR era—but Ervin feels pleased about how much he's learned as a hitter. He doesn't get himself out as much anymore and hits to the opposite field with greater frequency after being a dead pull hitter in high school.
"His understanding of the game has really improved," Dunn said. "That was evident this summer. You don't go up to the Cape and hit with the success he had unless you have a pretty good idea of how to approach an at-bat and how to approach different pitchers. That's where he's learned."
Irby came to Samford as much for the education as the baseball. His mother attended the school, and Irby wanted to get into Samford's pharmaceutical program. A self-described late bloomer, Irby pitched with a mid-80s fastball through his junior year of high school, but a growth spurt helped his velocity jump as a senior. "I don't really remember feeling anything extra," Irby said. "It was just, when I got out on the field, (the velocity) was just there. It just started getting better and better."
Dunn and his pitching coach, Mick Fieldbinder, got their first look at the new-and-improved Irby in that state championship. It proved a serendipitous moment. "We'd never seen him throw a ball over 85, maybe 86 mph," Dunn said. "He came in to close, and me and Mick looked at ourselves, and it was like, 'Man, that don't look like the same guy.' Sure enough, it was 90-91."
Not adding velocity until so late may have made it harder for Irby to get noticed as a high schooler, but working without overpowering stuff did force him to learn a level of pitchability that stands out from his peers.
"C.K. had to compete his tail off to get people out for most of his high school career," Fieldbinder said. "He hasn't lost that, but he's gained the physical attributes."
Irby worked in middle relief as a freshman for the Bulldogs, going 5-1, 2.48 in 22 appearances. He had also played shortstop in high school, but Dunn and the Samford staff didn't want to overload him as a freshman, so they had him concentrate on pitching. Irby admits he needed time to catch up to the speed of the college game, offensively, and he hit just .211 in limited at-bats that spring.
But Irby is one of those players who wants to be engaged every day and isn't wired to cool his heels for long stretches. He had a solid summer with Hannibal of the Prospect League in 2011, hitting .262, and the Bulldogs' coaches committed to letting him be the regular DH as a sophomore. Irby rewarded the move by hitting .340/.384/.512 last spring while continuing his strong work in the bullpen.
Still, Irby's future is on the mound, and the spotlight on him gets even brighter this season as he steps up to the Friday starter role.
"It's a natural step for him," Fieldbinder said. "I think it's another feather that he can put in his hat. He can do a lot of different things for a club at the next level. I just think he's looking forward to the challenge."
He made four starts last year, including a midweek start against Florida in which he limited the powerful Gators to one run on one hit over five innings. The team's coaches were encouraged by how well Irby held his low-90s velocity throughout that outing. He's always had a swing-and-miss curveball to back up the heater, and while he needs more reps with his changeup, he should be able to hold up as a starter. And he's most definitely up for the challenge.
"I don't want to sound cocky or anything, but I like being the go-to guy," Irby said. "I liked it last year when I was the closer. I was the guy in the ninth. And it excites me that when we're going up against somebody else's ace that I'm the guy they want in that situation, and I want to be in that situation."
Rivals Turned Roommates
Ervin and Irby are roommates now, but the state championship home run doesn't come up as much anymore. They still get competitive with each other, but now they have a common goal of helping the Bulldogs keep progressing as a program.
"We hold ourselves accountable now to do better than the last year," Ervin said. "We don't want to be the team that didn't do better than the last year's team. We just want to keep improving."
The duo will have a lot to say about whether that happens. Samford has to replace its leading hitter from last year, Saxon Butler, and the national home run leader, Brandon Miller. Ervin and Irby will again occupy prominent spots in the batting order, in addition to Irby's job as Friday starter.
Ervin should also get some work on the mound again. The Bulldogs lost enough arms off last year's staff that Ervin figures to be pressed into middle relief duty. He made just three pitching appearances as a freshman and didn't pitch at all last spring, though he showed a 90-92 mph fastball in a game with Harwich last summer.
But their significance goes beyond the numbers they'll produce.
"Phillip's a guy that expects to win," Dunn said. "He really doesn't know anything else other than finishing the season victorious, and I think that attitude has rubbed off on some of our guys.
"From C.K.'s standpoint, he is the true leader, the true definition of that word, whether it's in the weight room or on the field in terms of leading by example through his efforts there, or whether it's verbally being able to lead guys, motivate, encourage his teammates."