Quite The Tutors

Big league coaching helps out Turner




ST. LOUIS—For most of the game, the attention of the dozens of scouts sitting on the two sets of tiny metal bleachers or standing behind the chain-link fence was directed at the pitching mound.

The scouts and their radar guns had come to watch Jacob Turner, a senior righthander at St. Louis' Westminster Christian Academy who is projected as a first-round pick in June's amateur draft. Turner did not disappoint the crowd, firing up a three-hit, 11-strikeout complete game victory over St. Louis foe Ladue High.

It was when Turner stepped off the mound, while protecting a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, however, that the scouts really paid attention.

Turner had allowed a one-out double down the right-field line, and after the first two pitches to the next hitter, he believed the runner at second was trying to signal the location of his pitches to the hitter.

"It's happened to me more than once," Turner said later. "I looked at him and told him, 'that needs to stop.'"

To emphasize his message, Turner made sure the next pitch, a 94-mph fastball, was fired on the inside part of the plate. A strikeout and groundout followed, and the threat was over. The message that Turner left for the scouts was not.

"You like to see a young pitcher get in some jams and see how he reacts," said Al Nipper, a former major league pitcher and now a special assignment scout for the Red Sox assigned to evaluate pitchers. "Seeing how they deal with adversity says a lot about their competitiveness."

Sitting near Nipper was a longtime American League scout. The brief confrontation between Turner and the runner was not lost on him either.

"He's had some good instruction," the scout said. "For a high school pitcher he's picked up a lot of good traits."

Major Mentor

One advantage the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Turner has enjoyed is Westminster's pitching coach: former major leaguer Todd Worrell, himself a first-round draft pick by the Cardinals in 1982. Worrell's son also is a senior at Westminster.

Also on the unofficial staff at Westminster is the father of freshman catcher Tait Matheny, former major league catcher Mike Matheny. The younger Matheny was Turner's catcher at the start of this season, until he suffered a broken foot playing hockey.

"He's got a great competitive side, but he doesn't let it get out of control," Worrell said of Turner. "That was one example. He handled it and moved on."

Turner admits he has been fortunate to learn from both Worrell and Matheny.

"It's definitely an advantage to be able to talk to these guys," he said.

"I love talking philosophy and pitch selection with him," Matheny added. "I think what both Todd and I are trying to teach him is what he is going to have to do at the next level. There will be some changes he has to make in his game, and that's something he needs to know now. What I like best about him is his composure and how he handles himself. He has the perfect work ethic, and that's a pretty good combination. It's just a question of how hard he wants to work to get better."

Turner could not have been much better this season. After a junior year in which he struck out 92 batters in 48 innings and walked only nine, Turner started his senior year with a 3-1, 0.84 record and 49 strikeouts in 25 innings. As of April 20, he had allowed only 19 baserunners on 11 hits, four walks and four hit batters.

Worrell knows there are plenty of pitchers drawing the attention of scouts around the country who will have a much larger resume to consider when draft day arrives. From Worrell's vantage point, all of those extra games should not factor into Turner's draft status.

"He's got the whole package," Worrell said.  "He's got a good head on his shoulders and the athletic talent to go along with it. The real diamond in Jacob is his character and who he is. He's dependable and clubs won't have to babysit him. He has a huge upside to who he is as a person. As a pitcher, he's 6-5 with a perfect pitcher's body and a live arm. I really don't need to know anything more than that."

Staying Focused

What almost certainly will factor into Turner's draft status is that he will be advised by Scott Boras, and he has a full scholarship to North Carolina waiting if he decides not to sign a pro contract after the draft.

Even with all of the attention from scouts, Turner insists he has tried not to think about what will happen on draft day.

"Right now the only thing I am guaranteed is a scholarship to North Carolina," Turner said. "What I am striving for is to make their starting rotation next year as a freshman. I've talked to my brother Ben (a freshman catcher at Missouri) about how exciting college baseball is. School has always been very important to me and my parents, and I really like the business school there. I am looking forward to going there."

The right call from a major league team, however, could change Turner's plans in a hurry.

"There are so many factors involved that it's just best to let it play out and see what happens," Worrell said. "It is going to be a tough decision for him and his family."

Turner, who says his favorite pitcher is Roger Clemens, fell in love with pitching when he was 9 years old.

"I threw hard then, but I had no idea where the ball was going," he said.

Turner now knows where the ball is going—it's his future that is uncertain.

"I just want to play at the next level," Turner said, "wherever that may be."

Rob Rains is a freelance writer based in St. Louis