CLEMSON, S.C.—All season long, righthander Thomas Hatch has led the Oklahoma State pitching staff, delivering quality start after quality start. Friday, as the Cowboys opened play as the No. 2 seed in the Clemson Regional against third-seeded Nebraska, Hatch did it again.
For seven innings Friday, the redshirt sophomore shut out the Cornhuskers, scattering six hits and two walks. He rarely getting into trouble and working himself out of any jams that did arise. With their ace dealing, the Cowboys went on to a 6-0 victory, advancing to play host Clemson in Saturday's winners' bracket game.
"We've become very spoiled because this young man has pitched like this very, very consistently all year long," coach Josh Holliday said. "You never take for granted what an outstanding start that is but he's given it to us so many times."
Hatch was named the Big 12 Conference pitcher of the year last week, and, with the victory Friday, he improved to 7-2, 2.16. He struck out 10 batters and now has 102 strikeouts in 112 1/3 innings this season, making him the first Oklahoma State pitcher to reach that milestone since Andrew Heaney in 2012.
While Hatch has been the ace Oklahoma State needed this season, particularly after lefthander Michael Freeman, the 2015 Big 12 pitcher of the year, graduated and moved on to pro ball, it has been a long road to becoming the Cowboys' ace.
Hatch was ranked No. 95 on the 2013 BA 500. Drafted in the 32nd round by the Rockies that June, Hatch continued on to Oklahoma State. He had a solid freshman season, but strained his elbow that summer and it sidelined him for 15 months. He never needed surgery, but it still took time for him to return to full health.
Hatch spent his year on the sidelines studying his craft and watching the Cowboys other pitchers, including Freeman. Pitching coach Rob Walton, no stranger to injuries himself during his playing career, said he told Hatch he could learn from observing, much like a quarterback in the NFL who spends his rookie year as a backup.
Once Hatch was able to begin throwing again, he worked with Walton to change his delivery. They lowered his arm slot to an angle that Walton feels is more natural for Hatch. In the process, the righthander got more sink and velocity on his fastball, which is now a hard sinker that he regularly runs up to the mid 90s.
Walton said Hatch worked hard to make the adjustment and stick with it this spring.
"The impressive thing for Thomas, I mean he had to change his delivery and change his arm slot to do some things to free his arm up so it would stay healthy and he wasn't muscling the ball and those types of things," Walton said. "He deserves a lot of credit for maintaining that new delivery for the first time."
In addition to his sinker, Hatch mixes in a sharp slider and a changeup. He had them both working against Nebraska, and was able to throw all three of his pitches for strikes.
"First of all, for me to be successful, I have to have my fastball command," Hatch said. "I had that, and today my slider was a good as it's been all season. The combination of those two and flipping a changeup in there every once in a while."
Hatch's slider impressed Nebraska coach Darin Erstad, who played 14 seasons in the major leagues. He compared it to that of former all-star closer Brad Lidge.
"Just looking at his slider, it's very similar to a Brad Lidge-type of slider," Erstad said. "Where you watch the games leading up to this that you see him—so many check swings, so many swings and misses on pitches."
Nebraska rarely had runners in scoring position Friday, but when it did, Hatch was able to bear down. The Cornhuskers went 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Their best chance came in the sixth, when they loaded the bases with one out, only to see Hatch struck out the next two batters to end the inning.
Hatch said working out of that jam was important for him, after he struggled to do so in two of his past three starts. Against archrival Oklahoma on May 13, he was knocked out in the sixth inning and charged with a season-high seven runs. In the Big 12 tournament last week, he gave up four runs in 6 2/3 innings against Texas Christian. Oklahoma State lost both games.
"Recently, I've had trouble limiting damage," Hatch said. "I think it was big to step back and know we have a five-run lead, which is big for me mentally. Our offense did a good job all day, so that was big to just be able to pound the zone all day and ultimately know that if I can get a groundball and they get one or two runs, we're still up by three late in the game."
That kind of development on the mental side of the game is a strength of Hatch's, Walton said. He has seen his pupil mature during his time in Stillwater, learning how to handle disappointment and adversity.
Walton said Hatch has been a diligent student of his craft.
"It's a plus that his work ethic's good, his concentration's good and he owns his delivery and his biggest plus is he's extremely smart," Walton said. "He's a great student but also in conversations you have, he listens, takes it to heart and puts it into action."
Hatch's growth over the past year led him to Friday's start, his most important of the season. It was even more than he let himself think about as he worked to rehab his injury and return to the mound.
"I was just trying to get healthy," Hatch said. "Now, looking back, I wouldn't have imagined being here, but I'm sure glad I was."