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#TGW: A-Zay-zing Grace

March 9, 2018

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

Xzavion Curry is the exception to the idea of, “You are what you eat.”

“I’ve never been a healthy eater. Fast food just tastes good,” said the 19-year-old right-hander, with a big laugh. “The past two Fridays I’ve had Wendy’s before I pitched because I had Wendy’s and pitched well. So I was like, ‘I’ve got to get Wendy’s again on Friday.’ I’m going to see if there’s a Wendy’s in Clemson.”

Good news for Curry: There are actually TWO, one conveniently located on Clemson campus, and it’s open until 2 a.m.

That could be bad news for fans at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, who he hopes will see that the only junk involving Curry is in his pre-game — and sometimes in-game diet, which included Skittles or any kind of candy in the dugout within his reach.

“Sometimes I have skittles in my back pocket,” said Curry, an admitted fan of Airhead Bites or Starburst jelly beans.

“He can eat all the Skittles and McDonald’s he wants for right now,” said assistant coach Jason Howell, with a laugh. “‘Zay’s smart about it.”

What’s in his back pocket is not nearly as important as what is in his right arm. That’s heat.

Armed with an overpowering fastball, an equally tough slider, and an underrated curve ball — his arsenal could soon include a change-up, a split-finger and a cutter, as all are in the works — Curry brings a 3-0 record, a 1.00 ERA into Georgia Tech’s (9-3) Friday afternoon ACC opener against No. 6 Clemson (12-1). Zay’s riding a 15.0-scoreless inning streak, having allowed but two runs and 12 hits in his 18 innings of work in three starts. He has two quality starts and would have a third except for being pulled for cautionary reasons in the season opener.

He’s pounding the strike zone, sporting a better than 3:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio (17 Ks vs. 5 BB) and is nine punch-outs away from 100 for his career, heading into his 19th career appearance (all starts). That’s 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

Sounds like the stuff of an ace.

Coach Howell certainly thinks so.

“I think he’s a true Friday-night guy now. Not that he wasn’t last year but being a year older really helps,” Howell said. “He’s always had a lot of confidence and I think that he’s learning to be a pitcher more now. He’s added the curve ball, the slider has helped him out a lot, he’s able to throw it early in counts for strikes. He’s still trying to get a put away pitch with it and I think that will come. He’s ultra-competitive on the mound. He does a really good job of adding and subtracting with his fastball and understanding what he can do with that and he just always seems to find a different level and a different gear when he needs it. It’s been really fun to watch.”

Curry’s having the same fun he’s always had on the mound doing what he’s always done.

“It’s the same way I approach every game. I’ve got guys in the box trying to get hits and I’m trying to do my job in preventing them from doing their job,” he said. “Like Coach Howell says, ‘Faceless opponents, nameless opponents.’ You treat everyone the same. You don’t treat any hitter in the box differently. You don’t cut them slack or try to do too much. You stay within yourself.”

Sometimes Curry looks like he’s just playing catch with catcher Joey Bart. Of course, sometimes that’s LITERALLY what they’re doing.

“It’s nice. He’s got an idea of what he’s doing so it makes it a lot easier for me,” said Bart. “He’s working at a good pace and he’s throwing a lot of strikes. With stuff like his, when you throw it in there and make people swing there’s a lot of pressure on the hitters and they create some quick outs.”

He hopes to get quick outs against a Clemson team that is 11th in the ACC in batting average (.261), but is fourth in home runs (17), sixth in runs (89), and fourth in slugging (.438) and stolen bases (20).

His formula for success is lots of fastballs and showing breaking pitches just to keep hitters honest.

It worked against the Flames of Illinois-Chicago, who managed only five hits in six innings last Friday. Bart recalled calling No. 1 on all but four of Curry’s 102 pitches.

Curry credits his success against UIC and in general to location, location, location.

“For that game, I felt like I was really doing a good job of using the bottom of the strike zone,” he said. “My fastball was locating the bottom of the strike zone well. I was just basically saying, ‘Here, hit my best pitch.’”

Howell likes Curry’s confidence in challenging hitters and warns that their sitting “dead red” on the fastball is a mistake, as Zay has vastly improved his breaking pitches.

“He’s been working on (the change), working on a split. We’ve just been playing around some,” he said. “Bullpen-wise, he picks up on things so quickly and it’s fun to watch in bullpen sessions. We’ve been playing around with a cutter, which, again, it’s one of those I think we need to call more. Once we start getting it in the repertoire, the better it will get.”

Ironically, Howell sees a downside to Curry working in too many off-speed pitches.

“The change-up is actually a good pitch. It’s just when guys are late on your fastball, when do you throw that?” he said. “You don’t want to kind of give guys an advantage and give them something straight and slow. So it’s trying to find the right spot to use it that doesn’t just all of a sudden flip the advantage to the hitter. I still think you stick with bread and butter. I was told a long time ago that you do what you do and the hitters will let you know when it’s time to change.”

So far they haven’t and thus there’s little reason for Curry to change.

There’s certainly no reason to change his mindset.

“He’s great in attack mode,” Howell said. “That’s one good thing with the breaking ball, he’s been able to flip it in for strike one just to show that he’s got it and keep guys off of his fastball. But he’s going to challenge hitters. That’s just his mentality, his makeup. I love that about him, that attack mode. ‘Here’s mine, let me see yours.’”

Bart likes the combination of Curry’s confidence but admits there could be more breaking balls coming and more pitching vs. just throwing.

“What makes ‘Zay’ good is you can’t ever tell if anything gets to him,” Bart said. “It’s kind of that same mellow face that nothing’s fazing him.

“Sometimes I think his stuff has gotten him through things that might not get him through later down the road but that will come,” Bart added. “He’s going to get better every start and figure things out. We’re going to have to really mix the breaking ball in coming up in ACC play because guys in this conference are going to be on it and be able to hit hard fastballs. He’s definitely become a lot better pitcher but he definitely has a lot to improve on and he’s going to get to that point and you’re going to see a lot of improvement the next couple of weeks.”

Curry is determined to improve upon last year’s ACC season, when he went 2-4 in 10 starts and pitched to a 7.52 ERA (44 ER in 52.2 innings). Clemson touched him up for six runs (all earned) on eight hits in 4.1 last March 31 at Russ Chandler Stadium, drawing five walks, and rallying for five runs with two out and nobody on in the fourth inning.

But it is a new year and a more mature Curry, who is better able to find ways of limiting damage and keeping big innings to a minimum.

“I feel like I’ve developed more from the thrower to a pitcher,” he said. “Just learning in different times in the game, not just trying to throw it past you but really going off, here’s what they did in their last at-bat when they couldn’t hit, what their swing pattern is like. Every team in the ACC is going to be tough no matter who you play.”

First up the No. 6 Tigers at Kingsmore Stadium, where Clemson is 10-0 and holds a big time home field advantage.

“It’s definitely a tough place to play. They have some old fans that yell and say nasty things that you would never expect to hear from a 70-year-old man,” said Bart, with a laugh. “They’re true Clemson. I remember when I was up there, I had a tough game on Saturday and they were wearing me out from behind the plate. But that’s just part of it. They’re going to bring a couple of thousand out to the game Friday, all weekend. I look forward to it. It’s my favorite place to play since I’ve been in college.”

Curry pitched at Kingsmore over the summer with the East Cobb Yankees and is excited to check out the atmosphere and get the ACC season started on the right foot.

“I am very excited to go to Clemson to play. I’ve heard it’s a great environment to play in,” he said.

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