Sophomore Stumping Hitters

Xiao Dai/Staff Photographer

When you think of no-hitters, which name comes to mind? How about strikeouts? Nolan Ryan should ring a bell. The Hall of Fame pitcher was one of a kind on the mound. He was old school, never afraid to brush a hitter off the plate for any reason: staring at a home-run ball for too long, digging into the batter’s box, crowding the plate. Ryan finished his Major League career with seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts — both MLB records. Along with his seven no-no’s, Ryan also holds the record for the most one-hitters (12). He also pitched 18 two-hitters. Nicknamed the “Ryan Express,” the big Texan was intimidating and often unhittable.

When Ryan retired in 1993 as a member of the Texas Rangers, a little boy named Andrew Thurman was still a toddler, three years away from playing his first tee-ball game. That boy is now the sophomore ace of UC Irvine’s pitching staff. With one no-hitter to his credit, Thurman has a ways to go before he catches up to his idol, but he does lead Ryan in one category: nicknames. Call him “Thurmanator,” “Wild Thing,” “Dirty Thirty” or “Waldo,” but don’t you dare call him a Dodgers fan.

“From pictures, it jots my memory of the first game that I ever went to at Angel Stadium. I was in first grade and they were playing the Boston Red Sox,” Thurman said with familiarity.

Despite three different decades of Angels players to choose from, Thurman chose an Angel from the ’70s.

“I never watched [Nolan Ryan pitch live], but growing up he was favorite player,” Thurman said. “My dad used to sit me in front of the TV and we’d watch videos of him and see how he’d throw and just what type of pitcher he was. That’s who I wanted to  emulate when I threw.”

Thurman wore No. 34 at local Orange Lutheran High School in honor of Ryan. But when he arrived at UCI last fall, Evan Brock (No. 34) disturbed the 6-foot-3-inch righty’s uniformity. Instead, Thurman decided to wear Ryan’s other number, No. 30, which Ryan wore as an Angel — fitting for Thurman, a lifelong Angels fan.

Like many other athletes at UCI, Thurman dreamed of playing for UCLA, but things didn’t work out. After 10th grade, Thurman signed a letter of intent to play for manager Mike Gillespie and the Anteaters.

“There’s a lot to like about [Thurman],” Gillespie said. “He’s the kind of guy that everybody who’s come into contact with him is proud of him. It’s always good when the guys that work the hardest are also your best players, and that’s what he is.”

According to teammates, six days a week, Thurman clowns around.

“Dirty Thirty is always messing with people, or jumping someone. He’s always loose,” teammate Mitch Merten said. “Until game day. He’s serious and doesn’t talk much on game day.”

Gillespie and company embrace Thurman’s shenanigans, knowing that come Friday, he’ll be all business.

In typical Ryan fashion, Thurman has dominated hitters in 2012 after a rough start. He’s 8-2 with a 2.45 earned run average (ERA) in 14 starts. The ace of an Anteater staff is typically a seasoned veteran, but Thurman has grasped the haunches and ridden the Anteaters’ pitching staff to six straight series opening victories, as a sophomore. In his last six starts, he’s 6-0 with a 0.89 ERA, including a one-hitter on April 14 at home against rival Cal State Fullerton, followed by a no-hitter six days later at rival Long Beach State, and yet another one-hitter last Friday night against Cal State Bakersfield.

Thurman had a rocky start to the 2012 season. He experienced shoulder tightness after winter break, leading to just seven innings pitched combined in his first two outings and a bloated 6.42 ERA. On April 14, Thurman entered his start against Fullerton with a 2-2 record. Everything changed. Thurman said sayonara to the sophomore slump, taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning. As fate would have it, Thurman lost his chance at UCI history by a fluke, bloop single.

“It was tough trying to bounce back from that after losing it on an infield single,” Thurman said. “I take it, not as I gave up a no-hitter in the ninth inning, but as, I gave up one hit against Fullerton and we won that game.”

Prior to the start against Fullerton, Merten approached Thurman and asked him if he had ever thrown a no-hitter. Thurman said no, and Merten told him, “Throw one today.”

Before starting against Long Beach State on April 20, Thurman was approached by Merten again.

“Throw a no-no today,” Merten said again.

This time Thurman followed through. On Long Beach State’s home turf at Blair Field, Thurman tossed the first away game no-hitter in UCI baseball history. It was also just the second time Long Beach State had ever been no-hit. The first came one year before, when Thurman’s former roommate, Matt Summers, stymied the Beach at Cicerone Field.

With two outs in the ninth, Thurman induced a flyball to shortstop D.J. Crumlich.

“I smiled, and everybody tackled me, but it didn’t really hit me,” Thurman said.

After the game, Thurman rode the bus back to the Bren Events Center parking lot. He was embraced by his father, Gordon, who had coached him throughout his upbringing and shown him all of his Nolan Ryan archives. His mother, Deborah, brother Tim — a 6-foot-7-inch, 290-pound former minor league first baseman — and sister Katie were all there to greet him. The Thurmans treated it like any other evening, sitting down to an In-N-Out burger as Andrew’s phone rang off the hook.

Xiao Dai/Staff Photographer

To be a Friday starter at Cicerone Field it takes confidence, an attribute Thurman possesses. Former Friday starters Scott Gorgen, Danny Bibona and Matt Summers were all polished on the hill and rarely let opponents walk away with a series opening win. Thurman fits that profile, but with an exception, he’s not just a pitcher but an icon at Anteater Ballpark.

“He’s going to measure up with the best guys [in UCI history],” Gillespie said. “There’s been seven or eight real special pitchers here in these last 10 years and I think he’s climbing into that kind of circle.”

Keith Franklin, also known as “Super Fan,” is as obsessive as they come about his Anteaters. When he spotted Thurman wearing a pair of glasses while jogging along the warning track at a practice earlier in the season, he hatched a plan. Super Fan began wearing bifocals with thick, black rims, similar to Thurman’s spectacles, which have drawn the nicknames, “Waldo” — from the children’s books, and “Wild Thing,” because his rimmed glasses are reminiscent of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn’s (played by Charlie Sheen) pair in the comedic baseball flick, “Major League.”

The trend caught on. Every Friday, a stuffed Anteater wears thick brimmed, black glasses and sits perched on the stone fence behind home plate, leading an army of faithful fans in specs.

“Here we go, Andrew! Let’s go, finish it,” shouted Gordon Thurman last Friday night, as the crowd erupted for his son.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Thurmanator’s not my enemy,” Franklin shouted with one out remaining, before Thurman tossed his 100th pitch of the night and closed out his eighth victory of the season.

After dealing his third complete game shutout in five starts against Cal State Bakersfield on May 18, the local product visited with his family in the crowd. One fan high-fived him and said, “You’re going to make millions pretty soon!”

Thurman just shook his head, running his hands through his bushy, brown hair, unsure of what to say about his draft stock. A year away from becoming eligible for the MLB Draft, Thurman is eager for his rite of passage in the minor leagues.

“I’ve grown up dreaming of the long bus rides, and the late nights that you have to endure until you make it to the show,” Thurman said. “But I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

“This time next year,” Gillespie said, “we’ll be wondering where he goes in the draft. This guy’s on his way to having a real good, long career.”

Dirty Thirty has one regular season start remaining in 2012 at UC Davis on May 25. He conquered the sophomore slump in 2012; there’s no telling what Thurman might do in 2013. A perfect game? Well, not even Nolan Ryan did that.