April 30, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Pitching, when done right, looks so simple.
It’s all in the process — searching for the proper mechanics to deliver a strike, committing it to muscle memory then repeating it over and over and over.
But sometimes, even when once the perfect delivery is found physically, the mental aspect creeps in. Trust in oneself and trusting that muscle memory can make the difference between being in the groove and grooving your pitches.
Sam Clay has pitched with a high level of trust and confidence during 2014 and the difference is dramatic.
Heading into this weekend’s series against Virginia Tech, the 6-3, 202-pound sophomore lefthander from Buford, Ga. (Buford High School), is 2-1 with four saves, is pitching to a 1.65 earned run average (six earned runs in 32 2/3 innings), and is holding opponents to a .152 batting average. He’s held opponents scoreless in 16 of his 20 appearances.
His ERA for his freshman season was a 6.94, allowing 20 runs (18 earned) 23 1/3 innings and was scored upon in 12 of his 23 appearances.
“He’s very athletic and obviously very physical out there on the mound and has very good stuff,” said Assistant Coach Jason Howell. “With each outing he’s realized he can stay within himself and be very good. It’s just maturity and confidence. I think that’s been a difference. Just trusting his stuff and realizing that what he does is good enough to get hitters out and just not trying to over-think it too much.”
Clay won’t burden himself with expectations and doesn’t give a second thought to things like stats. He doesn’t have to understand he’s a better pitcher than he was in 2013.
“Last year I was very intimidated by pitching in the ACC,” he said. “But now that I’ve had some experience and have had some success I have a lot of confidence in my stuff. So I don’t care who’s up there. I’m just going to go out there and try to blow it by them.
“I just try to keep my composure, to keep my cool and have confidence that I can get them out and that my stuff is better than their hitting,” he added. “It’s just been throwing more with command that I’ve been working on and trying to get fastballs for strikes and let my off-speed work off of that. I was working on a slider last year and that’s become more of my strikeout pitch.”
Clay’s difficulty finding confidence as a freshman was tied to his difficulty consistently finding the strike zone. He walked 20 batters in his 23 appearances (23 1/3 innings) while striking out 17, while batters hit .258 against him. This season, he’s struck out 43 while issuing only 16 free passes and has become a key set-up man for closer Dusty Isaacs.
“A lot of Sam’s success is getting out there and knowing that he has a big role and being confident in what his role is,” said Howell. “I think he’s going out and not looking over his shoulder for guys getting loose or thinking, `Hey, if I don’t pitch well today I’m not going to pitch for a week.’ He knows he’s going to be out there and it allows him to relax a little bit. If he doesn’t get it done one day he knows he’s going to be rolled out there again within two games to get the job done.”
There have been few outings where he hasn’t gotten the job done. In the four appearances in which he’s allowed runs, only once has he allowed more than one run, and he’s been scored upon in back-to-back appearances in one three-game stretch. He had three multi-run appearances (a two-run and two four-run outings) last season and was scored upon in back-to-back games on three different occasions.
A more confident Clay came out firing from Day One in 2014. He went unscored upon in his first seven appearances and 12 of his first 13. After the three-game stretch — call it a tough week, April 11 through April 18 — in which he allowed single runs against Florida State and at Maryland, which sandwiched a three-run outing vs. FSU, he’s gotten back on a roll, riding his current streak of five straight scoreless games.
That dependability and effectiveness has led to Clay being called upon in high-stakes situations. His four saves tie Isaacs for the team lead (it’s 11th in the ACC) and he’s also pitched in several key non-save situations that were valuable to keeping Tech in position to win.
On March 28 at Pittsburgh, Sam threw a career-high 4 1/3 innings, allowing two hits while striking out five and not walking a batter to keep the Yellow Jackets in a game that eventually went 13 innings. On April 20 at Maryland he fired 1 1/3 innings of scoreless, hitless baseball, to keep the Terrapins at bay until the Yellow Jackets rallied to win in 12, 13-6, then, in his next appearance, three days later, he was perfect in the eighth and ninth, striking out four of the six Mercer Bears he faced, allowing the Jackets to rally in the ninth to force extras.
Those three appearances have simply blended in with the zeroes in his day-by-day stat line, but to the Jackets, that effectiveness mattered. Clay approached those spots as he approaches every appearance, as if he’s closing a game.
“I try to come in and shut down whatever’s been going on in that inning,” he said. “I’ve come in in many situations, first and second, no outs, bases loaded, no outs and get out of it with minimal damage. It’s kind of like coming in for damage control.”
Be it “damage control,” a hold or a save, that quest for goose-eggs has become contagious, and a good-natured competition throughout the bullpen.
“If I go in first and I strike out two guys Dusty wants to come in and strike out three, four guys,” Clay said. “Everybody’s trying to one-up each other and just try to get each other a little bit better.”
That friendly competition will keep things fun for Clay and his fellow pitchers as the regular season turns into the postseason.
“Our team chemistry is off the charts,” Clay said. “I can’t really explain it. It’s just fun to be out here.”
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