Strong Start

Volz is on a roll for Baylor

Back in his days at Smithson Valley High in Spring Branch, Texas, Kendal Volz was a linebacker on the football team. And not just a linebacker, but a standout.

Volz was a three-time all-district selection. He played outside linebacker, then shifted to middle linebacker his senior year after star teammate Joe Pawelek went to play at Baylor. Pretty good considering he wasn't really a linebacker, deep down.

"I think Kendal was probably more of a quarterback playing linebacker," Baylor baseball coach Steve Smith said. "I think he played linebacker more because of the need on his team, and that says more about him than anything. Kendal will do whatever you ask him to do, and you saw that last summer with the national team. He goes in there, and he's their closer. He'd never done that before, but that's what the role called for on that team."

After he left the gridiron behind in high school and followed Pawelek to Baylor, Volz earned an invitation to USA Baseball's collegiate national team in 2008 after spending his first two college seasons as a righthanded starter. Team USA planned to use Volz as its closer and he flourished in the role, racking up eight saves in 14 innings while striking out 16, allowing just six hits and yielding zero earned runs. His 92-94 mph fastball and hard, 82 mph slider made Volz a shutdown closer for a USA team that finished the season a perfect 24-0.

The summer also vaulted the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Volz into consideration for the top 10 overall picks in June's draft. Scouting directors voted him onto Baseball America's Preseason All-America first team, and he got off to a strong start, going 1-0, 1.86 in his first three outings. He had no trouble readjusting to his familiar role as the Bears' rotation ace.

"I've always started, but I don't have a problem coming out of the bullpen," Volz said. "It's also nice to get into a routine as a starter, kind of know when you're going to start. You can take over the whole game in the first inning."

That's exactly what Volz did in his second start of the year in a duel against the nation's top freshman, UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole, at the Houston College Classic. With dozens of scouts on hand at Minute Maid Park, Volz worked seven efficient, scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and three walks while striking out six. He did not show the kind of velocity he showed in relief last summer—his fastball sat at 88-90 and his slider at 77-80—but he commanded all his stuff well and mixed in a promising changeup.

Volz said he had more in the tank and could have thrown harder, but he was focused on throwing quality strikes—a sure sign of his maturity. An American League area scout on hand said he had no concerns about the velocity, particularly because of the heavy life on Volz's heater.

"What I like to see is guys commanding their fastball, especially when it's sinking," the scout said. "When it's sinking hard at 89-91, and you're able to command it, that's as effective a weapon as when it's 93-94 and straighter. Hitters would much rather face a 95 true fastball than 89 and busting your thumbs. I wasn't concerned at all. I was much happier to see the life and he was able to command it. He's big and strong, I'm sure the velocity will come up.

"But bottom line, if he commands like he did the other night, he's going to be in good shape. He splits the plate in half a little bit with the hard sinker going one way and the hard breaking ball going the other. That's a pretty good two-pitch mix right there. And I think the changeup will end up being a very good pitch for him in the future."

Volz said he has worked hard to develop his changeup since last year. Its emergence gives him a strong three-pitch mix and makes him one of the most complete pitchers in the Big 12 Conference.

Not that Volz was a slouch as a sophomore. He posted a 4.20 ERA and struck out 85 in 71 innings, but horrible run support and a challenging Friday night schedule caused him to go 3-6. The Bears scuffled to an 11-16 conference record and missed regionals after opening the season ranked 15th. Baylor's ballyhooed sophomore class—Volz's class—had arrived in Waco with fanfare in 2006, ranking as the nation's best group of recruits. But they were in danger of being stuck with the "underachiever" label.

With Team USA last summer, Volz absorbed his share of trash talk, especially from Big 12 rivals like Missouri's Kyle Gibson, who just so happened to be Volz's roommate (and spades partner) in the summer.

"Part of it was that smack talk; guys would say, 'Y'all are the pretty boys of the Big 12,'" Volz recalls. "I can see where they were coming from. Some of the guys on our team weren't your typical college baseball players doing anything they can to win and being selfless. One of the things we just pounded into everyone's heads this year from day one was we're going to win, but we're going to win however we need to. That's something that's different than the last two years—just the mentality, the selflessness, and the desire to win more than the desire for yourself to do really well."

Volz returned to Waco in the fall and told his teammates what people were saying about them. Smith said Volz has always been more of a quiet type, but he has become more of a vocal leader. Of course, the example he sets off the field—where he's a devoted student who lives his strong Christian values—has the strongest impact on the rest of the team.

"He's a consummate kid, he is just a great, great kid," Smith said. "He's really a man's man, and at the same time, he's a gentleman. He's a low-, low-maintenance kid in an era of high-maintenance kids. He's as low-maintenance as you can get. It's special when you run across a guy like that. He's been easy to coach in that regard."