July 15, 2013
By Jon Cooper
It’s been quite a memorable two years on the Flats for Josh Heddinger.
In that time, the Suwanee, Ga., native and former Buford High School star has beaten Georgia twice, pitched at Turner Field, helped pitch Georgia Tech to an ACC Championship, and forced an elimination game in an NCAA Regional by two-hitting No. 2 Vanderbilt, on the Commodores’ home field, no less.
That’s enough to make one’s head spin.
The ability to keep his head on straight has become a valuable part of Heddinger’s game and something that he’s recently recognized he’s been able to do.
“A lot of my mental game has improved,” said the 6-4 righty. “In my end-of-the-year meeting with [the coaching staff], they were very adamant on how I’ve grown more in the mental game. I’ve kind of let less things bother me on the mound because in the Vandy game, I walked six people but they also only got two hits. Those walks tend to affect what pitches I made later in the game.”
Not over-reacting and being able to put himself on auto-pilot and rely on muscle-memory has made him a better and more consistent pitcher. That pleases assistant coach Jason Howell.
“I always saw a great body, great arm, how easy he worked and the change-up and the off-speed stuff was always there. His stuff just wasn’t as consistent as any of us wanted it to be,” said Howell. “He kept working and as we got later on into the season everything not necessarily got better but everything got more consistent. He just kept repeating, kept repeating. It looks like he knows what it was and has carried everything over into the summer as well.”
The masterpiece against Vanderbilt may prove to be the game in which Heddinger showed he’d arrived as a big-time pitcher. He felt the switch go on after getting out of a first-inning jam, in which the Commodores get a runner at third with one out but nothing else.
“As soon as I got out of the first inning I kind of realized, ‘Okay, I’m meant to be here,'” he said. “I was like, ‘Okay, that was big. I’ve got to build on that.’ So each inning I tried to build on that and once it got to the seventh, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in the seventh inning!’ Time flew.”
Howell believes that game also saw Heddinger, who retired 12 of the final 13 batters, turn a corner.
“It was huge,” he said. “It just goes back to a confidence matter of kind of getting on a stage against a high-quality opponent and have success and say, ‘Yeah, my stuff IS good enough. I can play. I’ve just got to go out there and do it and continue to prove it.’ Hopefully it’s a thing where he sees where his ceiling could be and he continues to work just as hard as he’s been working to repeat that success.”
Thus far, he has as a member of the Peninsula Pilots of the Coastal Plain League. Heading into play July 15, Heddinger had made five appearances (three starts) and was 2-0, with a 4.15 ERA (12 earned runs in 21 2/3 innings). He’s allowed 21 hits while striking out 22 and walking only nine. He is holding opponents to a .256 batting average.
While he’s gone back and forth between starting and relieving, he’s comfortable. He just wants the ball.
“It’s pretty much whenever I can throw I throw,” he said. “I’ve told my head coach, and we have a pretty good relationship, ‘I want to throw as much as I can. Whenever you need me I can throw.’ Every five days I want to be able to throw like 80 pitches and work on things. But it doesn’t matter whether I start or if I come in in relief. The more I get out there the more I think I’m getting better because of the more experience I get. The experience I get up here will translate to how I perform in the fall and the spring.”
Heddinger recently got the opportunity to take the ball in the CPL All-Star Game, where the Jackets’ right-hander was one of four Peninsula players — one of two pitchers — to represented the host Pilots. The East won the game, 3-2 in 10 innings, with Heddinger pitching the eighth inning. He allowed a run — at the time the go-ahead run for the West — on one hit with a hit-batsman (the leadoff hitter, who ended up scoring), while recording two strikeouts.
“With all the scouts there you just try to do whatever they want to see. So I just went out and threw what I throw,” he said. “I threw pretty well. I struck out two, I gave up a run, but we ended up winning the game in extra innings. The experience was second-to-none. Being around a bunch of guys that are All-Stars, the best players in the league was just a really good experience.”
It added nicely to the experience he’s already gained pitching in the galaxy known as the ACC.
“Being able to face the Trea Turners (N.C. State third baseman, who also plays for the CPL’s Fayetteville SwampDogs), all of the big-name kids in the ACC, and you feel like, ‘Okay, I’ve faced him. Why should things be any different?'” he said. “That’s one of the best players on the team. You want to go after him the same way. Being in the ACC has really changed how I approach things and how I pitch to people. It’s mind-blowing how your mind changes from one at-bat to the next.”
Howell looks forward to Heddinger blowing some minds while blowing away hitters come the fall with the newly found confidence with which he’s pitching.
“You see him building off what he did the last third of the season and that he’s been able to continue it in the summer,” said Howell. “You hope that success and drive carries forward when he gets here as well.”
The CPL regular season concludes on August 5 and is followed by three rounds of best-of-three playoffs. Heddinger expects to pitch in the postseason for the Pilots, who stand in first place in the East, with a 7-2 record.
The playoffs should conclude right around the time he’s due back for the start of classes, and he’ll probably get a couple of weeks off from throwing — Howell said that all participants in summer leagues will. While it sounds pretty hectic, being busy isn’t a big deal. In fact, that’s the way Heddinger likes it.
“The busier I am the better,” he said. “My parents instilled that into me. The more you work, the busier you are the better you are. So that’s what I believe.”
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