Blessing In Disguise

April 27, 2010

By Jon Cooper
RamblinWreck.com

The mid-week starter is an important role, even if it lacks some of the prestige of the weekend starter or closer.

Then, again, being 6-0 is prestigious regardless of what day you’re pitching.

Mark Pope raised his record to 6-0 a week ago with a solid eight-inning effort in Georgia Tech’s 6-2 victory over Georgia Southern, as he scattered 10 hits, and shut out the Eagles over the final five innings, allowing only four hits over his final four frames.

The sophomore right-hander’s success isn’t a surprise. Where he’s doing it is.

Pope was sensational as closer in his freshman season, throwing 18 scoreless appearances out of 25, allowing only four of 23 inherited runners to score and, getting stronger as the season went on, pitched to a 0.69 ERA over his final 10 appearances.

Coming into 2010, the former 17th-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in the 2008 Major League Draft, was selected to the Preseason Stopper of the Year Watch List by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA).

But Head Coach Danny Hall saw Pope’s role differently, switching him and Kevin Jacob, who had been mid-week starter most of 2009.

Tough break, huh? Not really.

“I definitely prefer starting,” said Pope, who starred at Walton High School in Marietta. “I didn’t really like closing that much. It kind of felt I was a two-pitch pitcher as opposed to five, which I am now.

“I’ve done this my whole life so it wasn’t too hard getting back into the starting mindset,” he added. “Coming in last year closing was something I’d never done before so it was pretty tough to get changed into that whole ideal, dealing with that.”

This season, Pope has been dealing.

He is second in the ACC in wins (tied with teammates Jed Bradley and Brandon Cumpton, and three others) and ranks in the top 20 in just about every category, including ERA (3.99, 15th), opposing batting average (.278, 19th), strikeouts (48, 17th), hits allowed (52, 7th), runs allowed (23, 4th), and earned runs allowed (13, tied for 6th).

Pope may have been at his best on March 30, when he whiffed a career-high 11 in seven innings against Georgia State, which came into the game leading the nation in scoring (13.2 runs per game) and batting average (.379).

“That’s what we envisioned when we decided we were going to make him a starter,” said Hall. “He’s gotten better every time. He’s pitched better than maybe what his earned run average would say, but the thing I like is he’s not walking many guys, he’s throwing the ball in there and is giving us a great chance to win a lot of these mid-week games.”

He’s barely walking anyone at all.

It’s almost front-page news that he issued two walks against Georgia Southern, as it nearly doubled his season total. Pope has now walked five batters on the season (lowest in the conference) and his .95 walks per game is among the best in the country (it had been .69, third in the nation).

“I’ve always been told, there’s no defense for walks,” said Pope, who boasts a nearly 10-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio (48 Ks vs. 5 BBs). “So whatever happens, I try to throw strikes and hopefully they’ll hit it at somebody. Usually that’s worked out pretty well. I know they’re going to make the play behind me if [hitters] put it in play.”

Pope’s confidence in his fielders is reciprocated by his teammates, who enjoy his ability to consistently put the ball around the plate, which keeps them on their toes.

“He keeps the action out in the field,” said third baseman Matt Skole. “He’s not walking guys. It’s hard when guys are walking people to be ready for a ball. But when he’s throwing it up, he’s throwing strikes, everybody’s into the game, everybody’s ready to go.”

The Jackets have been as ready to go offensively, as last Tuesday night marked only the third time in his seven starts that they did not hit double-figures for Pope. They’ve averaged 12 runs in his starts and 9.9 runs of support when he’s in the game.

Each time they were held below 10, the Jackets came back with a vengeance the next game. The last time, following Kennesaw State “holding” Tech to eight in an 8-2 win, the offense made it up to Pope by laying 25 on Georgia in Athens.

He swears he didn’t guilt-trip the offense for lack of support against Kennesaw prior to the Georgia start, although it can be hard not to take the offense for granted.

“Sometimes that just happens. The other pitcher comes out and shuts you down. I guess you can say shuts you down if you count eight,” he said, with a laugh. “They just came out swinging [against UGA]. Getting runs like that, is just something you kind of start to expect from us.”

So, who’s the lucky team facing Pope in his next start with Tech, coming off the six-run outing in his last start?

That would be Georgia.

It will be Pope’s third start against the Bulldogs, who nearly beat him back on back on March 16, before getting steamrolled on April 14. This time it will be in the series finale, to be played Tuesday at Turner Field, as Tech looks to complete the season series sweep.

Pretty prestigious stuff.

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