Feb. 17, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Don’t expect Mark Pope to look overwhelmed or even nervous when he takes the hill tonight in Georgia Tech’s 2011 season opener against Kent State. (First pitch at Russ Chandler Stadium is at 4:00 p.m. The game can be heard on WREK, 91.1 FM, and live stats can be found on Ramlinwreck.com).
Pope has been there before, at least in his mind.
“They turn out well,” said the junior who, hails from Marietta and Walton High School. “You never want to picture yourself losing. You don’t ever want to put that in your mind. So everything is going well picturing it. Hopefully it will turn out that way as well.”
While he knows he has big shoes to fill in replacing Deck McGuire, the 2010 First Round Draft Pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, who was 28-7 in three years on The Flats, Pope is confident in his abilities.
That confidence is well founded. Last season he was 8-1 with a 3.87 ERA (33 earned runs in 78 2/3 innings) and his 37 runs allowed were third fewest in the ACC.
Perhaps the most impressive attribute about Pope is his command. In 2010 he had an incredible 5.6:1 strikeouts-out-walks ratio (73-13) and set a school record allowing 1.49 walks per nine innings (minimum 50 innings).
“I’ve always been told that you can’t defend a walk,” he said. “So, if you throw the ball, chances are 70 percent of the time they’re going to get themselves out, hit it to a player. So I just try not to let them get any free runners. That will turn into free bases and free runs. So just keep it around the box and let them handle it themselves.”
“I think we saw signs of what he could do as a starter last year,” said Hall. “He beat Georgia three times, so that gets everybody’s attention. He pitched the first game of the NCAA Regionals and did well there (Pope threw a complete-game, five-hit shutout against Mercer, striking out 10). He’s a competitive guy. He doesn’t walk people. He can throw four pitches for strikes at any time. He’s a great fielder. So he’s got the right stuff to be a Friday guy.”
Pope has the confidence of his teammates as well.
“He’s a stud. He’s a gamer. He plays hard. He’s a kid out on the mound. Just about every aspect about his game I absolutely love,” said junior second baseman Jacob Esch. “He’s the same kind of guy, same goofy kid [off the field].”
That’s goofy in an endearing way, the kind of goofy that works under the Friday night pressure cooker, facing some of the best pitchers in the country.
“Absolutely,” said Esch. “A kid who doesn’t succumb to the pressures. Even if he’s having fun being a goofy kid, he gets down to it and does his business.”
Business may be even better this year, for Pope, who worked with Pitching Coach Tom Kinkelaar to develop a change-up. It’s part of his continued evolution as a pitcher.
“I came in here either throwing a slider or a four-seam on the outside of the plate. I didn’t have many other pitches at all,” he recalled. “Now, I throw almost all sinkers. I pitch off my two-seam as well. I mix it up a lot better. I actually have a change-up this year, which is something that came along this fall, somehow. But it’s become one of my better pitches.”
Pope already knows about handling pressure, having been the closer as a freshman (5-1, nine saves, 19 of 23 inherited runners stranded) then the mid-week starter — he admits he prefers starting because of being able to pitch in a weekly routine — as well as by keeping a close eye on McGuire.
One thing Pope never had to learn is that regardless of which No. 1 he faces week-to-week he will not back down from anybody.
“This first game, we’ve got a lefty from Kent State (Kyle Hallock, selected on the 49th round of the 2010 Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies). He’s supposed to be pretty dang good. So I’m excited about that,” he said. “Also I’m thinking about Danny Hultzen from Virginia and a bunch of different guys. I’m excited.”
The unflappable Pope hasn’t let the responsibility of being the ace go to his head.
“I like it,” he said, with a laugh. “But we’ve got (junior lefty) Jed Bradley, who’s also very good. So, as a 1-2 punch we’re going to have a good opportunity to win no matter who’s on the mound.”
Hall’s biggest worry about Pope has less to do with him on the mound than on the infield.
“I hang out with him at second base during BP and he’ll take grounders,” said Esch. “He and Connor Winn, one of the shortstops, have a little competition every day fielding ground balls. If you field a ground ball you get a point and if you miss one you go down a point. Coach Hall and [Coach Bryan Prince] don’t let him do it but he finds his way back in there anyway.”
Hall insists he’ll continue to chase Pope away from middle infield.
“That’s an everyday thing, trying to kick him out of there,” said Hall, with a laugh. “We just tell him, ‘Get outta there, Pope.’ It’s that simple. Simple rule. ‘Get outta there.'”
Opponents may soon wish that it were that easy to get Pope off the mound.