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A Calling Game

April 7, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Mark Pope is not a control freak. Really, he’s not.

Or, well, maybe, depending on your definition . . .

There is this: As Georgia Tech prepares to play host to this weekend’s biggest college baseball series in the nation with No. 1 (in at least one poll) Virginia playing the role of villain, Pope’s breaking script by calling his own pitches. Tonight the lad will be – and has been – one of just a few college hurlers calling his own pitches. Dude gets the heeby-jeebies at the mere thought of doing it any other way.

College pitchers just don’t do that, but here he is . . .

Let’s take a break from what might be likened to a blown transformer in your neighborhood in the middle of a killer storm to focus for a moment on the storm itself. You can’t see through this stuff.

The Cavaliers and No. 8 Yellow Jackets are busting up the ACC. Some statistics, particularly pitching, are stupid ridiculous. Tech has to date had a remarkable run of pitching (pocked by mid-week games), yet the Jackets’ 2.21 team ERA (absurd, even when taking into account bat rule changes) is No. 2 in the ACC.

Virginia paces the field at 1.93. That’s Koufaxian or Gibsonian and it’s SPREAD OUT ACROSS A TEAM.

Back to the lad. He’s freaky in a controlled sort of way that fits the weekend’s uber-pitching theme.

“Pope’s got a lot of idiosyncracies a lot of guys don’t have,” said Tech pitching coach Tom Kinkelaar, who signals pitches in to every other Yellow Jacket pitcher. “That’s what makes him unique.”

Idiosyncracies; I love that, but it’s not entirely right as a stand-alone word/summation. The junior from Walton High School stands out for other reasons.

Let’s see: Pope’s leading the ACC in wins (7-0, covering every start), innings (54.2), ERA (0.66), complete games (three) and opponents batting average (.172).

Yet he toils in relative obscurity.

Dozens of Major League Baseball scouts and general managers will be in Russ Chandler Stadium tonight, Saturday and Sunday (subliminal reminder: that’s a recruiting tool), and they’ll have their radar guns trained on Virginia starter Danny Hultzen. He knows what he’s doing; might be a top five pick next June.

Interestingly enough, Tech’s Saturday starter, Jed Bradley, keeps showing up in a lot of these draft projections in Hultzen’s neighborhood, widely projected to go as high as the top 10.

Bradley’s one of just two ACC pitchers within striking distance of Hultzen’s un-Earthly strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio (15.15 to 12.16 for Bradley).

Back to Pope, who does as nice a job falling between cracks as any maestro might. He has no single overpowering pitch, not a fastball that cannot be caught up to, nor a curveball that falls off a table. Pope just has . . . something. He mixes is up brilliantly.

Yellow Jackets coach Danny Hall likes to compare Pope to Greg Maddux for the way he fields his position, which is exquisitely. See that pitcher out there taking infield before games? That’s Pope, at least until coaches give him the heave-ho.

The guy’s just got a brain for baseball, and like Maddux he uses it in every which way.

By the end of his freshman season, he was just shy of bananas about not being allowed to use his gray matter to the max. So he spoke up with the idea of calling his own pitches.

“I was uncomfortable on the mound not really understanding our pitching coach’s approach to batters,” Pope said of that conversation. “At first he wasn’t thrilled about it. We did it my last outing my freshman year against Elon in the NCAAs, and it went well.”

Pope has six almost interchangeable pitches if you count his two fastballs. For the most part, he throws what he wants and freshman catcher Zane Evans has gotten good at guessing what’s on Pope’s mind.

There are occasions where Kinkelaar or Hall will signal in a specific pitch and/or location, “whenever there is something they see from the dugout,” Pope said.

So, inner divinity be damned, Pope’s no saint.

Lest you think that said pitcher will go out there tonight with a game plan all his own, halt!

Pope, like all Tech pitchers, goes over opponent’s scouting reports with Kinkelaar and/or Hall. It’s just that he just happens to have a different feel for some hitters than coaches.

“He pretty much knows the game I’ll call,” Kinkelaar said. “So he has an idea and then we sit down and I’ll talk about the team we’re facing, [like] here’s how we should approach these guys. He pretty much listens to a lot of what I say and then bases it off of that.

“He’s also going on what he feels. I want all pitchers to feel like they’re in control.”

Pope is less likely to pitch to an opposing batter’s weakness than to follow his gut, saying, “You go into the game pitching to your strong points.”

That’s mumbo-jumbo for Pope’s favorite word: tempo. He’s absolutely convinced that’s the key to pitching, and it relates not only to the time between pitches, but variety in location, speed, you name it. He’s like a blackjack dealer in that way in the unpredictability coming from him, but unlike a dealer he decides on the next card.

When you throw six pitches to scads of locations with the ability to position fielders based on what you’re going to throw and your knowledge of what opposing batters might do with certain pitches, and, well, Mark Pope might just make big money tonight (payoff coming down the road).

The Bigs are watching, and the idiosyncratic one has a chance to divert their attention from Mr. Hultzen.

That is to a great degree within Pope’s control. But he’s not a control freak. Really, he’s not – at least not in life.

“Definitely not for the most part; just baseball and calling pitches,” he said when asked whether he’s a control freak all the time. “I’m just comfortable knowing my pitches. When it comes to other stuff, I know there are a lot of people out there smarter than me at a lot of things.”

I desperately wish I could be at the games this weekend. Spring break prevents that. If you have any sense, or at least a love of baseball, you oughta be at Russ Chandler Stadium. The winner of this series the past two years has won the division. Good luck finding a seat among the scouts, etc. They typically sit in the stands rather than in boxes. But if you get there first . . .


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