In the end, Mitchell Parker's start was nearly forgotten. He was, after all, one of several Canes Baseball 2018 players sitting in the home dugout Sunday afternoon at the Wilson Premier Classic, wondering if their team's tournament run was finished just as it was supposed to begin.
But then Parker's teammate--and Canes two-hole hitter Matt Mclain--hit a two-out, walk-off double into the right-center field gap that scored Xavier Edwards, capped a 5-4, come-from-behind victory over Baseball Northwest 2018 and sent the Canes into Monday's Wilson Premier Classic semifinals.
The comeback, which was necessary after the Canes fell behind 4-2 in the sixth inning, was complete when a mob of teammates sprinted toward Mclain and started celebrating around second base. The victory may never have been possible, however, without Parker's work on the mound, which felt like a distant memory as he sat in the dugout for the final inning without any input on the ultimate outcome.
"I was getting pretty nervous there for a minute," Parker said with a smile. "But we know we have some pretty talented hitters, so it was just a matter of time until we got going and then I felt normal again."
Returning to normalcy may have been more difficult than it sounded for Parker, a 6-foot-4 lefthander from Albuquerque, N.M., who appeared anything but normal when he took the mound to start the quarterfinal matchup for the Canes and head coach Jeff Petty. Pitching off of an 88-92 mph fastball that features natural arm-side run, Parker faced just one more than the minimum through the first four innings.
During those first four frames, Parker, who made a habit of keeping his pitches down in the strike zone, recorded 11 of his 12 outs either via a strikeout or groundout. It wasn't until the fifth when Parker, who is committed to Tennessee, finally got himself in a bit of trouble, surrendering back-to-back singles and a walk before two strikeouts and a groundout eventually ended the threat.
"I've really tried to focus on my location and spotting up with all my pitches," said Parker, who eventually ended his afternoon with 69 strikes in 105 pitches. "If I can get all of my pitches--especially the fastball and curveball--down in the zone, then I feel like I have a pretty good chance."
The curveball, which is a 74-76 mph sweeper with 11-to-5 tilt, was a dangerous weapon for Parker all afternoon. Comfortable throwing it inside against lefthanded hitters or to the outside corner versus righties, Parker relied on his curveball when he needed an out. With the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth, Parker threw three straight curveballs to Baseball Northwest's Dante Deniro and struck him out swinging.
"He's got a clean delivery, clean arm and he does a really good job of repeating his delivery over and over again, which can sometimes be hard for a kid his size," Petty said. "But he's an athlete and when he's commanding his fastball and curveball like he was (Sunday) that can be tough for any hitter, because both of those pitches are true swing-and-miss pitches for him."
But while Parker dominated, his teammates were having a tough time figuring out Baseball Northwest starting pitcher Caden Cornett, a soft-tossing lefthander who kept the Canes hitters off-balance. Even still, the Canes led 2-0 entering the sixth thanks to back-to-back, third-inning RBIs from McLain and Canes third baseman Nick Northcut and were just four outs away from a semifinal berth after Parker got yet another groundout and strikeout to retire the first two batters in the sixth.
Then, seemingly out of no where, the next six Baseball Northwest batters reached base, four of whom scored as a direct result of three Canes' errors. A two-run advantage quickly turned into a two-run deficit for the Canes, who now found themselves just six outs from elimination.
Parker was eventually removed from the game for reliever Owen White, a 6-foot-3 righthander from Mount Ulla, N.C., who sat mostly 90-91 mph with his fastball and topped out at 93. White, who is committed to South Carolina, eventually got out of the sixth-inning jam and faced the minimum in the seventh to set the stage for McLain’s game-winning heroics in the bottom half of the inning.
But not to be lost in the postgame shuffle was Parker's performance, which saw him credited with seven strikeouts and 17 first-pitch strikes while surrendering just four hits and zero earned runs in 5.2 innings.
"He definitely deserved to win today with the outing he had for us," Petty said. "We really didn't make any adjustments against their pitcher until way late in the game and that cost Mitch a win that he really deserved. But he stayed the course when we needed him most."
Although happy with his performance and satisfied with the team's victory, Parker said he's still working hard to improve a low-80s slider that he used only briefly on Sunday and a fourth-pitch changeup to fill out his arsenal. Working under newly-hired pitching coach Frank Anderson was a primary consideration in Parker's commitment to Tennessee, and he said he's most excited about the opportunity to continue his development at an SEC school.
Count Petty in as another one who's excited to see Parker's continued growth, especially as the tall lefty continues to fill out his currently lanky frame and likely adds even more velocity to his already above-average fastball.
"I made this statement in the dugout in the fifth inning (Sunday), when I told our pitching coach, Jason Mills, 'You know what's most exciting about this kid? He hasn't even scratched the surface of what he's going to be,'" Petty said.
"He projects through the roof. And I'm not trying to throw out any unfair names, but if you would have looked at Madison Bumgarner when Madison Bumgarner was in high school, there is probably some similarities with their body types, their deliveries, the fastball (velocity) and their breaking balls.
"And by no means am I saying Mitch will ever be like Madison Bumgarner, but once you fill him out and he becomes a 23-year old man in five years--I mean, wow. He's going to be a lot, lot better."