Will He Play In Peoria?

Jan. 29, 2012

By Jon Cooper

– This time of year is one of Mark Pope’s favorites.

It’s the time of year when the long off-season is coming to an end and a new season of facing live pitching is about to begin.

For the first time in four years, Pope wasn’t at Russ Chandler Stadium when the Yellow Jackets held their first official practice of the season.

Still, preparing for the upcoming season was still very much on his mind. It’s just that the process will be a whole lot different this year.

Friday afternoon he was more likely pinpointing the location of a place to live than pinpointing the location on his fastball. Instead of looking to hit the corners he may have been looking at places on the corner to hit to buy groceries or to eat after workouts.

Pope’s official on-field training starts when he reports on Feb. 24 to Peoria, Arizona, a long way from Marietta, where he grew up. It’ll be as a member of the San Diego Padres, light years from any level of baseball he’s ever played.

But that same anticipation is there.

“I just can’t wait to get going. I’m ready for the off-season to be over and get back to playing baseball,” he said. “I miss doing it and seeing all the guys out there. It’s what I love to do. I can’t wait to get back out there.”

Pope was selected by the Padres on the fifth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft (No. 173 overall) following an electrifying junior season that saw him go 11-4 with a 1.74 ERA, the sixth-best season in school history and lowest by a Jackets pitcher in 38 years. He set a modern-day record by throwing four complete game shutouts, became the first Tech pitcher in 14 years to throw a complete-game, one-hitter, and was rewarded by being named a Golden Spikes Award Semifinalist, an award given to the nation’s top amateur player. He finished his Yellow Jackets career with a 24-6 record and a 3.00 ERA, having tossed six career complete games.

But those accomplishments and accolades, as well as the Braves 400 Club’s Jason Varitek Award for Most Outstanding Scholar Athlete in Georgia, awarded to him at the group’s recent Eddie Glennon Gamboree — at which Tech Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall also was honored as their prestigious “Mr. Baseball” — all get packed up. Those are in the past.

He’s on his way to “The Show.”

Suddenly even little things like finding an apartment have become an important part of his preseason regimen. But don’t worry about him. He’s not worried. He’s still the same unflappable kid that worked his way up from reliever to midweek starter to staff ace.

“Most of the teams rent hotels. It sounds great to me. The bed gets made and the floor gets picked up, so, it’s not too hard on us,” he said with a laugh. “And living with a bunch of guys it’s always fun. I could be with a host family, which I’ve already had some experience with up in Cape Cod.”

He also has comes into 2012 with some professional experience, as he pitched one game for the AZL Padres of the Arizona Rookie League (two innings, four hits, two earned runs, three strikeouts) then in 10 games, all in relief, for the Eugene Emeralds (A-Short Season), where he went 3-1 with a 3.41 ERA (11 earned runs in 29 innings), allowing 26 hits, striking out 24, while walking only 11, and holding hitters to a .239 average.

Pope expects to build on the foundation he put down over the summer in the five-plus weeks of Spring Training, ideally starting 2012 in Southern California with the Lake Elsinore Storm (Advanced-A), or in Indiana, with the Fort Wayne Tincaps (A).

But first things first.

He’s excited to get to camp and learn under the tutelage of Padres Manager Bud Black, who pitched in the Majors for 15 years, going 121-116, with a 3.84 ERA, 32 complete games, 12 shutouts and 11 saves, pitching coach Darren Balsey, one of the most under-rated pitching coaches in the Majors, whose teams have pitched to the second-best ERA in baseball (3.98) since he took over in 2004, and other pro coaches.

“[Black’s] got all that experience. He’s one of those guys that will tell you these little things that will help you gain an advantage any way you can,” he said. “At Georgia Tech we had one pitching coach, Coach Kinkelaar. He was awesome, he knew everything. But coming from pro ball you’ll have like five guys working with you. So each one of them might see a little something different. That’s the main difference I’ve seen. Just little things can trigger something and hopefully something will click for you.”

Pope is still grateful for Kinkelaar’s influence as well as that of Coach Hall.

“I remember my freshman year I was scared to death of the guy. When he was coming out take me from an outing, it usually wasn’t going to be for a good reason,” he said with a laugh. “But throughout my junior year he started to let me go, he had a lot more confidence in me as a pitcher and he was a good guy to go to. He knows a lot about baseball and it was something that anything that’s going to happen on the field he’s seen before. He can get you through anything.”

Pope will pack the wisdom he got from Coaches Hall and Kinkelaar with him as well as some choice advice he received at the Gameboree from Braves Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro.

“He said, ‘Take your losses but don’t let them become defeats,'” Pope recalled. “That’s pretty deep because you’re going to have losses throughout your career and throughout life but don’t take them as a defeat. Always be able to bounce back from it.”

Sounds like he’s ready to go.

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