The New Ace

March 14, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn

Sting Daily

For just a few moments Monday, Mark Pope lost his groove. His phone connection was fouled up, he faded in and out. Finally: “Can you hear me now?” Why, yes. “Awesome.” The technological glitch was a rare change of pace for Pope, who Monday was named both ACC and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s co- national player of the week.

He’s been silky smooth, throwing back-to-back complete game shutouts for Georgia Tech, and amassing a 4-0 record with a staggering ERA of 0.29 for the Yellow Jackets. You could say he’s been awesome.

How else would you describe not giving up an earned run in 25 consecutive innings, or allowing just one in four starts covering 30.2 innings?

This may fit the definition of irony or it may not, but the biggest improvement between Pope now and in the past (when he was fine, but less refined) has been . . . his change-of-pace, his changeup.

A throwaway pitch in previous seasons, it’s an out pitch now.

That’s saying something, since the junior from Cobb County’s Walton High is comfortable throwing a whopping six pitches – four-, two-seam and split-finger fastballs, a slider, a curve and the change – in meaningful situations.

“I used to just throw [the change] now and then to give a hitter something else to look at,” he said. “It always bounced to the plate.”

With a new grip on that changeup, and even more confidence working the inner half of the plate, Pope has been popping.

In Tech’s 1-0 win over Maryland in Friday’s ACC opener, he allowed four hits without walking a batter. In recording the last out of the game, he registered his sixth strikeout.

“It’s definitely all just confidence, knowing you’re on a roll,” Pope said. “The changeup was something I’ve worked on for eight or nine years. Now, I’m pretty confident in it. It’s a different grip that slows it down, it’s a lot easier to control.”

Speaking of grooves, there’s one Pope’s missing. He’d like to hit again, like he did in the old days when he was a pretty fine third baseman: “I miss it every day.” A lock to be drafted next June (again, as he was a 17th round pick of the Braves in 2008) as a pitcher, Pope’s days as a hitter are likely finished unless he ends up in the National League. In the end, the management major (who’s pursuing a minor in psychology) said that’s OK.

He’s 17-2 at Tech, where as a freshman he was the Jackets’ primary closer and last season he was coach Danny Hall’s chief mid-week starter.

“Seeing the guys hit in practice and BP, I definitely don’t like playing just half the game,” he said, “but if I had to choose just one thing to do in baseball, it’d be pitching.”

Methinks pitching would be the right choice for Mr. Pope. What do you think of this young man? stingdaily@gmail.com.

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