Unlikely Aces Emerge In Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS—Brad Goldberg threw 20 innings over his first two collegiate seasons at Coastal Carolina in 2009-10. Then he transferred to Ohio State, sat out 2011 due to NCAA transfer rules, then missed all of 2012 because some of his academic credits did not transfer from Coastal to Ohio State.

After that two-year layoff, Goldberg emerged as a true ace for the Buckeyes this spring, going 6-1, 2.99 through 81 innings.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers made just one appearance as a senior in high school before “growth issues in his forearm” sidelined him for the rest of the season, as his Indiana bio puts it. He made just one appearance as a freshman in 2011 before missing the rest of the season with a broken hand, according to IU coach Tracy Smith. He entered this season with just eight career innings in two seasons. But after going 8-1, 1.98 in 82 innings during the regular season, he was named Big Ten player of the year this spring.

Those two unlikely aces both shined in starts Thursday at the Big Ten tournament, leading the top two seeds in the conference tournament to victories.

The 6-foot-10 Slegers, who showed up at Indiana as a walk-on with a 79 mph fastball, is the ultimate story of a determined athlete proving the doubters wrong.

“The best part is his freshman year we got this nasty message from someone left on our machine, ‘How you can you guys take Aaron Slegers? He’s terrible. He’ll never amount to anything in your program,’ ” Smith said. “Seriously. ‘He’s awful. He’ll never pitch. He didn’t even pitch in high school, you guys are nuts.’ When that happened, and he got named pitcher of the year in our conference and the year that he’s having, I love it. His work ethic is unbelievable, he’s a great kid. When you’ve got a 6-10 guy that’s a strike-thrower, with his angle, he’s going to have success. But it’s a really neat story. In college athletics now it’s about the high-profile recruit, this, that and the other. Here’s a guy that I think is going to be a pretty decent pick this spring that has earned everything. We didn’t even guarantee him anything—he’s a walk-on. We gave him an opportunity, and he seized his opportunity.”

Slegers began this spring as the No. 3 starter in Indiana’s rotation, and he got off to a good start, but it took a few weeks for even Indiana’s coaches to fully accept that he was the real deal.

“We were still waiting—the first outing was OK, the second outing was good, the third outing was good,” Smith said. “But at that point we were waiting for it to be not an accident, and I think around the fourth we thought, ‘This is probably for real.’ ”

Down the stretch, the Hoosiers realized that Slegers was only getting stronger as the season wore on, while 5-foot-10 junior lefty Joey DeNato had a history of wearing down a bit late in the year. So the coaches decided they wanted to ease Slegers toward the front of their rotation by the time the postseason rolled around. Last week, they moved him up to the No. 2 starter job, and this week they handed him the ball in their Big Ten opener, so he’ll be in line to start the first game of their regional next week.

He certainly looked the part of an ace in Thursday’s 4-2 win against Minnesota, allowing just one run on five hits and no walks while striking out seven over seven strong innings. He pounded the strike zone throughout his start, exiting after 94 pitches. The Indiana defense played well behind him, giving him the confidence to pitch to contact and conserve his pitch count.

“All the credit to those guys,” Slegers said of his defenders. “I have no problem at all just letting a hitter put the ball in play, because I trust those guys behind me.”

He sat at 90-91 and touched 93 in the first, then settled into the 85-88 range in the middle innings, touching 90 when he needed to. That’s a sign of his maturity; Smith said he’s more effective when he stays on top of the ball and relies on movement and angle rather than sheer velocity, but he can get in trouble when he overthrows. His second pitch is a quality changeup at 82-84 that he threw to both righties and lefties. His slider is improving, and he snapped off a few good ones in the low 80s, although more often it was a slurvish offering in the 77-79 range.

“He’s coming on with the slider, the last couple outings,” Smith said. “Not so much today, because we didn’t throw it today, but his slider’s coming on pretty good. It’s been in that low-80s range too, which is a pretty good pitch.”

Brad Goldberg

Brad Goldberg

Goldberg, meanwhile, has always shown flashes of a good power slider, which helped him rank as the No. 6 prospect in the Prospect League back in the summer of 2009. He has become more consistent with the pitch this year—it showed good tilt and power in the 82-84 range Thursday, when he allowed just one run on five hits over 6 2/3 innings. He struck out six and walked four, earning a no-decision in Ohio State’s walk-off 3-2 win against Nebraska.

He scuffled in his last start against the Cornhuskers on April 13, allowing four runs on seven hits over 4 2/3 innings. But in a testament to his maturity, that experience made him better this time around.

“I didn’t have a real good start against them last time, but I learned a lot,” Goldberg said. “They grind and make adjustments more than any team in the Big Ten, in my opinion.

“Going into the game, that wait, the coaches will tell you, I’m a little bit of a fiery guy going into my starts. So I felt really fired up to pitch. The first inning, I came out there, got a big doubleplay ball. We executed the game plan. My arm felt fine, my body felt fine. Late in the year, this is when you want to thrive, so I felt good.”

Ohio State coach Greg Beals credited pitching coaches Mike Stafford and Josh Newman with helping Goldberg realize that his heavy power fastball is his bread and butter, and that if he can pound away down in the zone with that pitch, he can be successful. He ran that fastball up to 94 on Thursday, sitting comfortably at 89-92. That helped him register nine groundball outs. He also has a solid third pitch in his 76-78 curveball, which has more depth than his tight slider and gives him a good change-of-speed offering.

Beals said he thinks Goldberg could provide excellent value as a senior sign in the upcoming draft, moving quickly through the minors in a relief role. But in the meantime, he has blossomed into a valuable starter for the Buckeyes.

“A lot of his development is based on his maturity,” Beals said. “To take two years off, essentially, and be as good as he is right there, speaks a lot to his workmanship and his maturity as a young man. It took a lot for the young man to work through that.”