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Bullington could go No. 1 overall

By Michael Pointer
May 22, 2002

Bryan Bullington
Photo: Stan Denny
MUNCIE, Ind.--Righthander Bryan Bullington got hit in the face by a line drive during last year's Mid-American Conference tournament. He's thankful he did.

"Someone was looking over me that day and kept me out of harm's way," the Ball State junior said. "For getting hit in the face, I guess I got hit in the right spot."

Bullington was struck during the Cardinals' opening-round game against Miami (Ohio), damaging sinuses on the right side of his forehead. But the ball didn't hit him in the eye. It didn't end the career of one of Indiana's most dominating college pitchers. It didn't endanger his chances of becoming a millionaire.

The latter likely will happen when he is selected in the first round of the draft--possibly first overall.

"If anything, it made him a little more determined," said Bullington's father Larry, the basketball coach at Indianapolis' Pike High. "He likely had a guardian angel on his shoulder that day."

Three days later, Bullington was back on the mound--and took the loss in Kent State's 13-3 victory in the MAC championship game. He had surgery the following week and still made the USA Baseball's national team two weeks later.

This season, he was 10-2, 2.11 for Cardinals, compiling 126 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 94 innings. In his last regular season start, the MAC career strikeouts leader tied former big leaguer Bob Owchinko for the single-season strikeouts record.

"I think he's an outstanding competitor right now," said Florida coach Pat McMahon, coach of the national team last summer. "But I think there's a lot of room for him to improve, and he knows that. A lot of projectability comes from body type and athletic ability, and he's an excellent athlete."

Quantum Leap

Bullington started the season as the No. 2 college prospect and moved to No. 5 at midseason but has closed the season with a flourish. He has a fastball consistently clocked in the 92-94 mph range, a hard slider and a sharp curve. Few college pitchers have that kind of mastery of three pitches, though Bullington just went from two-pitch to three-pitch man this year, after losing an early-season matchup with Kentucky ace Joseph Blanton.

"Early in the year, he basically had the fastball and a slurve," Ball State coach Rich Maloney said. "He threw a slurve his whole life, and the pro guys graded it as an average pitch. I think it could work for him, because it had great rotation, but it was not an overpowering pitch.

"After he lost to Kentucky, we sat in the stands and I told him that he could keep throwing the slurve, but he needed to know the assessment was that it was an average pitch at best, and his changeup needed work. If his slurve wasn't there, he was very hittable."

Bullington decided he didn't want to be hittable, working on adjusting his grip and delivery to tighten up the slider. Maloney said most of the adjustment was mental.

"The irony is, he can throw the slider, and it's a hard pitch, 82-86 (mph) and nasty. You'll see it six to seven times a game be just a big league slider," he said. "But it's also made his curve better; he's slowed it down and he has better command of it. He just doesn't walk anybody now."

Projecting Greatness

Bullington has impressed scouts with his improvement and his toughness in returning from his head injury. He also has a toughness developed from being a high-profile coach's son. Larry Bullington was a star athlete before his son, averaging 36.5 points at Indianapolis' John Marshall High during the 1969-70 season—-which still stands as the Indianapolis city single-season record. He later played baseball and basketball at Ball State.

Wherever the elder Bullington coached in Indiana, people were watching, waiting to make sure the coach's boy wasn't getting any special favors.

"You've got to deal with that," Bryan said. "If you don't produce, you're under the microscope all the time. Coming in (to college), you've got to keep that kind of attitude."

Injuries to some upperclassmen allowed Bullington to become the Cardinals' No. 1 pitcher as a freshman. From that came a confidence that he's never lost, Ball State catcher Doug Boone said.

"He's always had the stuff," said Boone, a 15th-round selection of the Marlins last year. "He's always had the good breaking ball and offspeed pitch. But now he can throw it almost whenever he wants."

Bullington has grown one inch to 6-foot-5 and weighs 225, adding nearly 30 pounds of muscle, most of it in the torso and thighs, since arriving on the Ball State campus. But as good as he is, he is coveted because scouts can see further improvement.

"Honestly, I think Bryan is scarily good," Maloney said. "Someday, I think he's going to win 20 games in the big leagues. He's going to be a No. 1-type pitcher and pitch in the All-Star Game."

Bullington insists his first priority is helping the Cardinals earn an NCAA regional berth. He stays focused by keeping the same routine as always. He continues to attend class, even though he intends to leave school after this season. He still hangs out with his teammates. No lavish purchases are planned with his expected windfall. When asked what he expects to do with his signing bonus, Bullington said, "Invest it."

"He is a humble person," Maloney said. "But the fire that burns inside him is as strong as ever. He wants to be one of those top few players. It's his personal goal."

Michael Pointer covers college sports for the Indianapolis Star.

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