March 27, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Next Up: at No. 7 Louisville Friday, 4 p.m., Saturday, 1 p.m., Sunday, 1 p.m.
Zac Ryan is always up for a challenge.
Opposing hitters are learning that the hard way and aren’t really enjoying the challenge that he presents, which begins pretty much as soon as they step in the box.
“I’ve just decided to go at the hitters. Just make them hit me instead of trying to play with them or play games,” said the 6-1, 201-pound sophomore right-hander from Valparaiso, Ind. “I have a lot better feel for my off-speed pitches this year and being able to make those is definitely helping a lot as well.”
Boasting a 5-0 record, four saves and a 2.10 ERA, Ryan is the only pitcher in the nation with five wins and at least two saves and is in the top 10 in the ACC in wins (1st, second in the country), saves (4th, 53rd), Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched, aka WHIP, (.97, seventh) and ERA (2.10, 10th). He credits his all-business approach.
“I’m trying not to play around with hitters,” he said. “I’m focusing a lot more on getting first-pitch strikes and really putting all the pressure on them. If I can get that first strike it usually goes pretty good for me.”
Ryan and the entire Jackets staff, which comes into the weekend eighth in the ACC in ERA (3.78, more than a run higher than Louisville, whose 2.70 ranks second), will look to continue to have things go good against a Cardinals (18-7, 8-1) team that is ranked seventh in the country, has won seven of eight (although they’ll be a little more ornery than usual, having lost their last time out at Indiana) and is 12-3 at home.
Louisville, the Atlantic Division leader, ranks eighth in the conference in hitting, at .271, 25 points below Tech’s second-ranked attack, and is 10th in runs scored, plating 132 runs, 36 fewer than the Jackets’ fourth-ranked attack, although Tech will be without freshman sensation Kel Johnson. A key will be slowing the Cardinals running game. UL has attempted the second-most steals in the Conference (52) and has been successful 36 times, tied for third. Of course, they also haven’t tried running on Tech’s Arden Pabst, the Johnny Bench Award candidate who has caught 54 percent of potential thieves (13 of 24), good for fifth in the nation.
“Louisville is a very good team but we are, too,” said Ryan. “We’re definitely going to give them games and I think we have a good chance to win the series. As long as our pitching comes through like it has been I know our hitting is going to get the job done.”
Ryan certainly has.
While ranking amongst the league leaders in wins is not usually a good thing for a closer, Ryan hasn’t “vultured” wins — the unintentional reward a reliever sometimes gets by blowing a save then getting a win when the team comes back. In Ryan’s case, he’s simply kept on pitching in and has been around when the Jackets, who have 17 come-from-behind victories and have won four times when trailing after seven and three times when trailing after eight, rally.
“Any time the game is late and it’s either tied or we’re up I want the ball,” said Ryan, who has only been scored upon three times all season, only twice in his last 10 appearances and only once in ACC play (his first time out, against Notre Dame on March 7.). “They’re giving me a lot of those chances. I’ve just been lucky enough to have my team come through when I’m on the mound and we need it.”
In contrast, Ryan and the bullpen have kept Tech’s opponents from claiming even one victory when trailing after SIX!
“Everybody down there is brothers,” he said. “It’s a family Our whole team has been that way the whole fall and this whole season. Every time somebody goes out we’re all rooting for him. We look at it as far as a win for the bullpen than we do for the individuals.”
Ryan has led the family with a team-leading 13 appearances (only three fewer than last season) and he’s provided the kind of relief coaches love. He’s not only been effective — a near 5:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio (23-5), he’s also been able to maintain that effectiveness over multiple innings. In six of his appearances he’s pitched more than two innings, (he had eight his freshman season), when he was midweek starter, including a pair of four-inning appearances against Ohio and at Kennesaw State, which matches last year’s total.
When it comes to innings, it’s the more, the merrier.
“I actually like it. I want to be out there and I want to log as many innings as I can,” said Ryan, who, at 25 ⅔ innings is five innings shy of matching his 2014 total. “I want to be out there just because I feel like as a team we have a good shot with me out there on the mound. So I like getting the ball early and really going as long as I can or as long as they’ll let me.”
“They’re really good about not overusing me,” he said. “If I go Friday they’ll usually give me Saturday off. But if it’s a big series and if we really need it I want to be out there. “It’s really about pitches. The most I’ve thrown is about 65 pitches and that was with knowing that I would have three days rest afterward.”
That doesn’t mean he’d ask off going all three days this weekend in Louisville.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I think that I get a lot better feel for my pitches so by the Saturday, Sunday games I think I’ll be better than I am for the Friday game.”
A series win would go a long way in keeping the Jackets in the hunt for the Coastal Division — they start the series in a three-way tie for second, one game behind Miami. That’s a much better position than they were in 2014, when they finished fifth, under .500.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s a lot better for team morale especially,” Ryan said. “Everybody is confident. We’re all just having fun. We know that we can compete with any team out there so we’re really going out there to see how much we can push ourselves and see how far we’ll go.”
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