The Fragile Life of A Prospect

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Phuc Pham | New University
Phuc Pham | New University

DRAFT: UC Irvine’s ace, Andrew Thurman, could be a millionaire in June if he stays healthy.

A half dozen radar guns shoot up in sync. Scattered throughout the seats at Cicerone Field, home of the UC Irvine baseball team, five scouts and a father sit analyzing the effectiveness of Andrew Thurman, a third-year college student from Orange County, California, majoring in political science but studying baseball.

If Thurman weren’t on the mound, those six radar guns wouldn’t even be in the stadium. If he’s still healthy in June, Thurman will likely be a millionaire. Thanks to a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and an extensive repertoire of breaking balls and cutting fastballs, Thurman is currently projected by PerfectGame.org to be drafted in the latter half of the first round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft.

Andrew’s father, Tim Thurman, has been in his seat at the top of section 104 for two hours since batting practice. Just like the Arizona Diamondbacks scout sitting one aisle over in section 103, Tim’s gun is drawn as his son prepares for the first warm-up toss of the season. Scouts from various Major League Baseball franchises are in attendance to see how much zip Thurman has on his fastball, one year after tossing a no-hitter as a sophomore. They want to see what the deal is with this new cutter — how does he handle pressure with men in scoring position, and does he tire in the late innings?

“I sit with a radar gun for educational purposes,” Tim said. “I want him to be a pitcher, though, not just a guy who throws hard.”

Phuc Pham | New University
Phuc Pham | New University

Thurman is known as Dirty Thirty — 30, his jersey number, inspired by Nolan Ryan, and Dirty, for the makeup of his pitches, fooling hitters with a biting slider, a changeup to keep hitters off balance, the new cut-fastball and a work-in-progress curveball. He’s as unhittable of a pitcher as there is in the Big West Conference, home to powerhouses Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine.

Named a preseason All-American by College Baseball Insider, Thurman fills the shoes of a long line of Friday starters. UCI’s last three aces have gone on to be drafted in the fourth round, eighth round and fourth round respectively. But the one who was selected in the eighth round just three years ago, Danny Bibona, now stands at the steps of the dugout in a windbreaker twirling a pitch counter around his wrist, rather than reporting to Spring Training like his old St. Louis Cardinals teammates.

Bibona didn’t seek out an MRI while pitching a few short years ago on the very same mound that Thurman now occupies, but in the heat of his senior season at UCI, he neglected to report shoulder tightness that would later develop into a 160 degree labrum tear, effectively ending his baseball career. Now Thurman is in his hands. Has Bibona learned anything from his own career’s demise? Will he pull Thurman from a game if he senses discomfort, even if it means dropping Thurman’s draft stock and upsetting a few scouts?

With a number of teammates experiencing arm ailments, Thurman isn’t concerned about the injury bug, but maybe he should be. He’s healthy, he’s throwing hard and he’s confident. The plan is to be playing in the Minor Leagues by summer, but as his pitching coach and other teammates have realized, the career of a pitcher doesn’t always go as planned. Raised by a perfectionist father who has molded his son after the great Nolan Ryan, Thurman believes his work in the gym will suffice. If he’s wrong, it’ll cost him millions and the game he loves.

In Minor and Major League Baseball, players are coddled. In college, players are used up, they infrequently visit the trainer’s room and they are loosely educated on how to take care of a pitching arm. To make matters worse, they’re young and stupid, looking for their first taste of a title. For Andrew Thurman, the College World Series is that title that could ruin his future if an injury surfaced and he kept it quiet.

“If I was in pain late in the season, I’d probably chew on about 20 Advil and go out and throw, but that’s just me,” Thurman said.

***

With a 90-pitch limit in his first start of the season, a complete game isn’t likely for Thurman on Opening Day. Having waited all fall for this moment at the tail end of February, Thurman winds and fires a bullet into the back of catcher Ronnie Shaeffer’s mitt, echoing like a tiny explosion throughout the ballpark. He hops off the mound, blowing warm breath into his fist and holds his glove-hand out, begging for the ball back, itching to rub the red laces.

On this night, Thurman would officially touch 95 miles per hour in a game for the first time. In his no-hitter just 10 months earlier at Long Beach State, Thurman averaged 87-89 miles per hour, maxing out at 91. With 95-mile-per-hour zip on his fastball, Thurman’s stock is on the rise. Six practice pitches later, Shaeffer throws down to second base, Baylor outfielder and leadoff man Nathan Orf strolls to the plate, digs into the box and stares out at the mound at the 6-foot-3-inch righty glaring right back at him.

Thurman is willing to toss an inside fastball and back a batter off of the plate, so it doesn’t take long to figure out that the 21-year-old is old school. Like his idol, Nolan Ryan, he’s willing to throw until his arm falls off. Healthy or hurting, Thurman won’t let anyone know the difference and won’t back down. Therein lies the problem.

Thurman’s 95 mile-per-hour fastball has added to his repertoire, which has scouts, coaches and teammates frothing. With his 72-year-old, old school coach in the dugout, fighting the battle between pitch counts of the present and the throw until you’re done traditions of the past, Thurman’s mind is far from the draft hype and the prospects of playing in Single A by August with a $1.5 million signing bonus in his bank account. Right now, all he wants is to pitch in the College World Series, but being a team player could be detrimental.

***

It’s been four years since the Anteaters were last ranked no. 1 in the nation, and six since they fell short of their first College World Series at their first Omaha appearance in school history. With Thurman, Irvine once again has a shot at contending for a College World Series berth. Without him, pack up the gear.

“If [Thurman] were to go down, and you don’t like to think of these things, but if he were to go down, we’d be in trouble,” Coach Gillespie said.

Gillespie is in his sixth season with the Anteaters. A Hall of Fame college baseball manager, Gillespie made his mark for 20 years at the University of Southern California, winning one national championship. There, he coached future MLB all-star pitchers Randy Johnson, Barry Zito and Mark Prior.

Since arriving in Irvine, Gillespie hasn’t led the UCI Anteaters to Omaha once in five full seasons, despite inheriting the no. 1 team in the nation. They’ve come close, falling one strike short of advancing to the World Series in 2011. In an elimination game against the no. 1 ranked Virginia Cavaliers, a walk-off single up the middle sent the Virginia Cavaliers to the 2011 College World Series and the Anteaters back to John Wayne Airport. With no outs in the ninth inning, Gillespie brought in his best starting pitcher, Matt Summers — now in the Minnesota Twins’ organization — to attempt to close out the game on two days’ rest. The typical college pitcher gets six days off between appearances, but when the World Series is on the line, coaches and pitchers think short-term rather than long-term.

“Like everybody else on the field, [Summers] was a supreme competitor, so it came as no surprise that he would say five times that he was fine,” Gillespie said of his decision in the postgame press conference. “If it was clear to me that he wasn’t the same and his stuff was no good, we would have had to [bring in another pitcher]. But, really, we didn’t have a guy we wanted to bring in for that situation.”

So instead of putting in an overmatched relief pitcher, Gillespie went with Summers, risking his ace’s health for a shot at the College World Series. But can you blame him? There’s no NCAA rule that prevents a pitcher who starts on one day from pitching in relief the next day, or even later in the same day, had it been a double-header. After throwing 93 pitches on a Friday night, there was Summers on the mound for game three on Sunday, befitting for a grizzled veteran making millions of dollars for the New York Yankees, but irresponsible for a college kid who was weeks away from signing his first professional baseball contract. One misstep and a pitcher can go from millionaire to retired ballplayer turned pitching coach.

The heir to Matt Summers, Thurman is prepared to pitch on short rest this June if presented the same set of circumstances, even if it could jeopardize his throwing arm.

As Thurman, a junior, goes through what will likely be his last season of college baseball, his father Tim isn’t worried that his son could break down. When the season is on the line though, his son could be pitching on two days’ rest without a signed Minor League contract, risking everything.

“We’ve seen guys go down on this team, and you never know what it is. Is it genetics? Is it how you work out, who knows? I’m not worried and neither is [Andrew],” Tim Thurman said.

Will Thurman decide to swallow Advil and neglect an MRI if his arm flares up? Is his training routine enough to sustain an old school, year-round pitching regimen?

His pitching coach Danny Bibona’s tragic flaw and Nolan Ryan’s longevity now serve as the measuring stick for Thurman’s career. Bibona retired at age 24, Ryan at 46. Tim Thurman has many theories about pitching, most of which are tied to Nolan Ryan, whom he has modeled Andrew’s game after for years. If Tim’s experiment pays off, his son will have a long baseball career ahead of him. If it doesn’t, Thurman could become just another coach with tendonitis, like his obsessed father, living out his own dreams through his son.

***

Heavy set, Andrew Thurman’s father, Tim, sits atop section 104, this season 52 pounds lighter than last year after going on the “Jared Diet” from Subway. His UC Irvine baseball cap still has the authentic sticker under the bill as he walks into the ballpark with a backpack over one shoulder. At the ballpark for Andrew’s games, Tim is ready to study. He waits at the railing overhanging the team’s clubhouse just behind the dugout for his son to notice him. Six minutes go by before Tim tosses down a blue Gatorade and a few words to his ace.

“You can count the number of games I’ve missed on one hand,” Tim said.

Phuc Pham | New University
Phuc Pham | New University

Thurman’s father has used up every sick day and then some to watch his son play baseball. He doesn’t miss practice often either, admitting that he tries to get as close as he can to the baseball fraternity, the slapstick humor, the jargon and the dedication that takes place at Cicerone every day.

“I ask Scott, the groundskeeper, if he ever needs someone to rake the field. I’m always trying to squeeze in here. This is one of the best-looking fields in the country,” Tim said, scanning the park.

Thurman’s parents are involved. In high school, Thurman used to pitch with his father serving as the public address announcer at Orange Lutheran High. Andrew’s mother, Deborah, was the president of her son’s Little League for years. Tim was also an assistant coach to his son for three years in Little League, but never headed one of his teams. Instead, he was always in the stands taking notes and finding ways to perfect his son’s mechanics and training routines.

Tim hasn’t retired yet. He worked for 17 years with the Environmental Protection Agency, helping to establish and monitor the Clean Air Act. He’s given free tickets to each game at UCI, but prefers to pay his own way, sitting away from the parents toward the visiting team’s seating section. He does it in order to have a view of the home dugout and bullpen.

“I told my boys, I won’t take any of your money, just like you’re not going to take any of mine,” Tim said of not accepting free tickets.

“I get a note from Dr. Engfield (sounds like infield) to come see him play,” Tim said, cackling. “And when I go play golf with him, I get my note from Dr. Fairway. Dr. Blue Line is for when we watch hockey games.”

Andrew is his father’s last shot at molding a major leaguer. Tim’s career topped out at high school, when he was throwing just 78 miles per hour. With Andrew now throwing 95, he also defeats his father on the golf course regularly, shooting in the high 70s and low 80s.

“That’s what us dads live for,” Tim said. “We live to see our kids beat us.”

Throughout the years, Tim set up performance goals for Andrew to increase his fastball three to five miles per hour per year that started when his son began pitching from the stretch at age six.

Tim remembers the first time he ever took Andrew to a California Angels game. He still has a picture of the two of them walking into the ballpark with Andrew on his father’s shoulders.

“The Angels were playing the Red Sox that day,” Andrew Thurman recalled.

Once in the ballpark, they watched a game played on the same surface that Nolan Ryan once dominated as a pitcher for the Angels.

Ryan’s number, 30, hung retired by the ballclub under the scoreboard in right field, where it still hangs today, in the ballpark and on Andrew Thurman’s jersey. Tim always sat Andrew down in front of the tube to watch Nolan Ryan-produced training videos and read baseball encyclopedias to him, hoping he’d learn a thing or two from the man who became known as the Ryan Express, a man who holds the record for the most strikeouts in the history of Major League Baseball — 5,714 — and no-hitters — seven. Ryan threw pitches over 100 miles per hour when he was in his 40s. He lasted 27 years in Major League Baseball, tossing 5,386 innings, the fifth most all-time.

Thurman already has two lifetime no-hitters. After having a no-hitter broken up against Cal State Fullerton last season, Thurman came out and threw a no-hitter in his very next start against Long Beach. With two no-hitters under his belt, Tim’s son is five away from Nolan Ryan.

In 1971, Major League Baseball began tracking pitch counts. Nolan Ryan holds the record since then, after throwing 244 pitches in a 15 inning game in 1971.

Despite heightened precautions that range from pitch counts, the addition of relief pitchers and extra days’ rest that has been implemented uniformly and widely accepted on levels ranging from the Little League World Series to the Washington Nationals shutting down one of baseball’s phenoms, Stephen Strasburg, just before playoff time in 2012 because of an innings limit, players continue to experience arm injuries. Tommy John surgery has become the norm, and many professional careers are ending before they’ve even begun.

Tim doesn’t buy into pitch counts.

“Old time pitchers didn’t know what a reliever was,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to it. If you teach a kid to throw a curveball right, he’ll throw it with his wrist and not the elbow. That’s where kids get hurt is when they’re breaking it off at the elbow. So the ‘Don’t teach kids to throw curveballs too early’ thing, that’s a myth.”

Nolan Ryan has come under scrutiny in recent years as the president of the Texas Rangers for asking pitchers to go deeper into games. He’s spoken out against coaches calling pitches for high school and college pitchers, saying that pitchers need to know their own limits and that a manager in a dugout doesn’t understand what the pitcher is feeling in his arm whether he’s thrown 100 pitches or 140 pitches.

“Everyone has limits,” Ryan once said. “You just have to learn what our limits are and deal with them accordingly.”

Tim applauds his son for his work ethic.

“He lives in the gym,” Tim said. “I’ve hammered it into him. There’s a lot of ways to get an advantage nowadays from the gym, to a chemical advantage. I never have to drag him to the gym, he’s always in there.

“It’s all about lifting nowadays, building that lower body, being flexible and throwing long toss,” he added. “[Andrew] strengthens his shoulder and arm with elastic bands. That resistance training has helped him throw harder.”

At the start of the season, Thurman was one of three starting pitchers on UCI’s pitching staff. The others, redshirt junior Matt Whitehouse and redshirt senior Evan Brock, have redshirt in front of their year of eligibility for a reason — shoulder injuries. Two years removed from major reconstructive shoulder surgery, Brock was shut down after he experienced elbow pain in just his first start of the season. Had the pain been in Thurman’s elbow, it would have been disastrous for the Thurmans and the Anteaters.

***

In a study conducted from 2005-2008 at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, 41.9 percent of high school baseball players with shoulder injuries came while pitching in practice, while 10 percent of those injured required surgery. The study also found that injuries sustained on the pitcher’s mound were much more likely to result in surgery than those experienced at other positions.

Coach Gillespie remembers coaching junior college baseball in the 1970s when his team used to play one game on Tuesdays and two games on Saturdays. Back then, Gillespie only carried two pitchers on staff. They’d split the innings in half on Tuesday and pitch one game each on Saturday.

“We only needed two pitchers,” Gillespie said, “and they never got hurt.

“It hasn’t always been this way [with injuries]. I think the fact that kids these days focus on one sport growing up, is not so much a good thing. It used to be that you’d play football in one season, then basketball and baseball. That’s uncommon now. There’s travel ball now, and the competition is much more intense at a young age. Then you have kids throwing more innings and these arm injuries are the result.”

Each offseason, UCI seems to lose at least one player to a shoulder injury. In sunny California, there are no snow days for the Anteaters. If it’s raining in November, they play catch and take batting practice in their personal batting cages, just outside the stadium along the left field line. Despite all of the arm injuries, many of which are caused by continuous stress from an unnatural arm motion that is pitching, the Anteaters can’t relax. Fullerton isn’t relaxing, neither is Long Beach, UCLA or USC. UCI pitchers are given about one to two months of rest per year. In the Major Leagues, the average pitcher’s season ends sometime between September and October, and the offseason ends in mid-February, allowing for at least 3.5 months of downtime. UCI pitchers haven’t received that luxury.

“They gave Andrew about a month or month-and-a-half off after he came back from playing in the Cape [Cod League] this summer,” Tim said. “Even I get a vacation at my job, so pitchers need it too.”

But stress has been placed on Thurman’s arm almost year-round for more than a decade, playing travel ball in summer leagues and fall ball when the regular season ends. Training aside, one has to wonder whether the stress will add up like it has with other pitchers on staff, or if Thurman has channeled Ryan’s secret and is ready to pitch into his 40s.

“This guy [Thurman] is on his way to having a real good, long career,” Gillespie said.

While pitch count limits and staff monitoring have been used as ways to avoid arm injuries, the damages continue to pile up for UCI. Brock, Whitehouse and Thurman have experienced shoulder ailments throughout the past year, with varying degrees. In August of 2010, Brock underwent shoulder surgery to repair a posterior labrum tear and had four anchors placed in his arm. Last season, he returned perhaps too soon, and as a result didn’t regain the velocity that he showcased as a sophomore. Whitehouse was shut down with a nagging shoulder injury in 2012, and Thurman missed some time in the winter of 2011 with shoulder tightness.

“It’s one of those things where you just have to wait and see how a guy recovers after a start,” Gillespie said. “There’s a lot of freak injuries that have happened to us.”

For 15 years, Thurman has pitched without any serious arm injuries. Can he pitch another 15?

***

Andrew Thurman grew up in Orange, California. He attended Orange Lutheran High School, a Southern California powerhouse that recently produced Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, two of the top three draft picks in the 2011 MLB Draft. As a freshman in high school, Gillespie noticed Thurman playing on a frosh baseball team at Orange Lutheran. Thurman had grown up as the batboy for Cal State Fullerton, UCI’s rival, but he couldn’t resist signing a letter of intent at age 15 to come to UCI.

He has a thick head of hair, perfect white teeth, bushy eyebrows and a blonde girlfriend two years his elder who ran track at UCI.

“He’s a good guy, unselfish, a great student, hasn’t been arrested,” Gillespie said with a belly jiggle. “Hasn’t gone to jail, girlfriend likes him. He’s a good one.”

Teammate Mitch Merten says Thurman is one of the funniest people he’s ever met.

“Until game day. He’s serious and doesn’t talk much on game day,” Merten said.

On Halloween, Thurman dressed as Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, an ex-convict pitcher with a temper, played by Charlie Sheen in the movie, “Major League.”

Thurman grew up playing a few years of soccer, travel baseball and living under the roof of a wealthy family. Tim says that his son is never flustered or bothered by anything.

Off the field, he wears the glasses popularized by Waldo from “Where’s Waldo?” leisurely, but he puts his contacts in on game days. The fans at UCI get a kick out of it. The first few rows at home games typically wear a fake pair of their own black-rimmed beauties in the stands while Thurman pitches on Fridays.

Deep down, he has to know that he’s the best player the Anteaters have, but he would never let it show. While visiting with his family after a game once, a fan approached and said, “You’re going to make millions someday!”

Thurman crinkled his chin and shrugged his shoulders.

“[Thurman] has a great future ahead of him, and he’s handling this draft talk well,” Gillespie said.

Calls from MLB scouts often flood his phone. Sure, it’s exciting to think of the possibilities. Will it be the Diamondbacks, the Yankees or his hometown Angels? How many years will it take to play under the bright lights at Angel Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field? Will he ever make it?

“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.”

Obviously, Thurman loves baseball, whether it’s tossing a two-hitter or raking the field after the game. At the moment, he’s in the top percentage of all amateur baseball players in the United States.Over 190,000 baseball players are eligible each season for the MLB Draft, and if he’s healthy, Thurman will likely be one of the top 100 players selected in a draft of approximately 1,300 players.

Marlon Castillo | New University
Marlon Castillo | New University

“His focus, concentration and intensity define him,” Tim said of his son.

That focus sets Thurman apart.

In t-ball, Thurman was playing third base in his first game when a ball was struck, as hard as a ball could be struck in t-ball, to the right fielder. Clueless four and five-year-olds stood around as the ball bounced through the outfield grass. At the strike of the bat, though, Thurman took off from his position at third base, sprinted past all of his teammates and fielded the ball in right field.

Tim used to scout his oldest son, Tim Jr., from an early age. Tim Jr. played a few seasons of Minor League ball as a 6-foot-7-inch, 290-pound first baseman in the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system and is now retired from baseball in his thirties.

“People don’t believe me when I say this, but I would sit Andrew in my lap when he was three or four months old while watching three straight Little League games,” Tim said. “He’d nod off every once in a while, but he would just stare at the field.

“One of his first words was Pete Wose,” Tim said, referring to one of the hardest-playing baseball players in history — Pete Rose.

Thurman and his teammates are expected to respect the game, and it takes little convincing. They aren’t allowed to walk on the field, no matter how low their earned run average or batting average is. It’s an unwritten rule that has been in place for about seven years at UCI. It’s nothing new: if your feet are on the field, they better be running. Just like every other teammate, when Thurman hits the outfield dirt in right field, coming from class for an afternoon practice, he jogs all the way around the dirt path with awkward skate shoes dragging along, and a backpack of notebooks bopping up and down until his feet hit the dugout steps.

“I’ve always told him,” Tim said. “You have to give credit to your teammates, because you can’t have wings and beer after the games by yourself.”

***

So here Thurman is, in what will likely be his last season of college baseball, chasing the same dreams that Danny Bibona pursued as an Anteater just three years ago, the same dream his brother chased a decade ago and that his father gave up before Dirty Thirty was even born.

If Thurman can survive his college career, he’ll become an investment for one Major League franchise. There he’ll be pampered, just as Bibona was. But if you’re too damaged, you’re tossed out. One in 10 players drafted eventually play in the Major Leagues. Bibona wasn’t one of the ten.

College baseball players aren’t coddled like the professionals. After a start in the Minor or Major Leagues, a pitcher is whisked away faster than Lindsay Lohan darting through a crowd of paparazzi to retrieve her car.

Pitchers are an investment on the professional level. With ballclubs paying thousands of dollars monthly to minor leaguers, and millions of dollars monthly to major leaguers, a pitcher can be placed on the disabled list for petty complaints, from hangnails to sprained toes. Bibona has seen both sides in recent years, and there is a distinct difference between the handling of pitchers from collegiate and professional baseball.

“I would get my conditioning in wherever I could in the minors. Sometimes it was in the parking lot,” Bibona said. “After coming out of the game in the sixth or seventh, I would recover, eat and be dressed in street clothes by the ninth inning. It was a whole different world.”

When your start is over in college, you become a cheerleader, sometimes standing stiff along the dugout railing for hours before receiving proper treatment to expedite the healing process and reduce soreness.

Tim Thurman is bothered by how his son is treated between innings.

“I’d really like to see [Andrew] wear a jacket more often in the dugout,” Tim said.

So Bibona, why not implement a recovery program like they do in the pros?

Marlon Castillo | New University
Marlon Castillo | New University

“No, I don’t think we’re going to do anything like that,” Bibona said. “In the pros, it’s not about winning as much as it is about staying healthy. It’s more of a team game in college.”

That same mentality is likely why Bibona is now throwing batting practice at UCI instead of pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Three years ago, Bibona was the ace on UC Irvine’s baseball staff. A four-time All-American, Bibona was drafted in the 16th round of the MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009, but he decided to stay for his senior season in order to improve his draft stock and to compete for a College World Series.

UCI didn’t make it out of the UCLA Regional that year, Bibona’s college career ended, and he was selected once again by the Cardinals, this time in the eighth round. Bibona experienced shoulder tightness throughout his collegiate career, but never sought a medical evaluation. After all, if MLB scouts had an idea of what would develop into a 160 degree labrum tear in Bibona’s left shoulder, he would go from tossing one-hitters to tossing away a six-figure signing bonus.

Bibona kept his arm ailments quiet. Two years later, he was recovering from shoulder surgery performed by Cardinals’ physician, Dr. George Paletta, at Spring Training. He felt great and was firing strikes once again on the corners, but there was a problem with the radar gun — it read 82 miles per hour. Bibona was used to throwing 88 miles per hour. His velocity improved slowly throughout the spring of 2012 until it hit a plateau at 85 MPH.

“They told me there were a lot of pitchers coming up in the draft and released me,” Bibona said. “When you’re playing, you want to play forever and never think it would end so soon, but now here I am.

“I had plenty of downtime to think about what I would do if my career ended after shoulder surgery. I contemplated going back to school and the LSAT, but coaching felt right. When [ex-UCI pitching coach Jason] Dietrich left [to take the same position at rival Cal State Fullerton], the timing couldn’t have been better,” Bibona said, twirling the drawstring of a stopwatch around his index fingers.

Bibona was dominant — one of the best that had ever passed through Irvine en route to the pros. Now he’s coaching Andrew Thurman, the new Danny Bibona, the new ace, the next big thing, who is just as hardheaded as Bibona was when he was pitching at UCI. All too familiar with the burden placed on an overworked pitcher, Bibona has to be held accountable for Thurman’s workload. He turns his head, instead.

Thurman throws his bullpen sessions on Mondays, when no one, not even his pitching coach, is around. It’s just Thurman and his catcher. Coming off of a career-ending shoulder injury, one would expect Bibona to be more protective of his young pitcher, but Bibona still believes that pitchers need to take the figure-it-out-for-yourself approach, which cost him his career.

“It’s hard to put it in some guys’ heads,” Bibona said. “It’s something they’ll learn on their own.”

With a rookie pitching coach on staff, parents and players should be concerned. Is Bibona ballsy enough to pull his best pitchers, and risk losing in order to prolong his pitchers’ careers?

Can he look Gillespie in the eyes and say, “I’m yanking him from the game?”  Gillespie knows every statistic; he’s a walking baseball history book, and he even played Oakland A’s bench coach Ken Macha in the movie “Moneyball,” but he also expects a great deal out of his pitchers, whether they’re ready for it or not.

On the collegiate level, pitchers are faced with a predicament: How do I pursue a national championship without jeopardizing my potential MLB career? What would teammates think or say if I pull myself from the game when the team needs me? The season is on the line and I’m in pain, do I think short-term or long-term?

Andrew Thurman is an unemployed college student. Pitching is his profession, at least for the moment. One day, Thurman hopes to throw in the Major Leagues, but until his name is called in June for the MLB Draft, Thurman has everything to lose.

“Not everybody makes it,” Tim said. “It’s a hard row to hoe. When he’s out on the field, Andrew has the blinders on. [Getting outs] is all he’s thinking about.”

***

The moment everyone has waited for all winter — the first pitch. As Thurman glances in, catcher Ronnie Shaeffer throws down a sequence of digits between his legs. Fumbling around with his glove, trying to throw the batter off, Thurman eases his index and middle finger along the seams for a two-seam fastball as teammates in the field begin to chatter.

“Let’s go, Thurm.”

“Here we go, Thurm.”

Baylor’s bench hums along in anticipation for the first pitch like a crowd anticipating kickoff at a football game.

“Heeeeeeeyuuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmm-oooooooh.”

Thurman winds and fires a called strike for the 0-1 count.

“Boooo,” a few Baylor opponents jest at the top of the visiting dugout’s stairs.

“Attaboy, Thurm!” an infielder shouts as his pitcher quickly gets back to work.

Three pitches later, Thurman breaks a slider off that clips the outside edge of the strike zone after whizzing past the Baylor leadoff hitter’s aluminum bat.

“Strike three!” the home plate umpire shouts.

Eighty-eight more pitches and five innings pass by for Thurman. Bibona makes his first coaching appearance of his career in the sixth inning.

Thurman holds a 6-1 lead, having allowed five hits and struck out four batters in 5.2 innings. Bibona walks up the steps of the home dugout, then takes two fingers and slaps his right bicep while strolling out to the mound, calling for a right-handed reliever.

“Get back in the dugout!” Tim shouts at Bibona from his feet.

Thurman is pulled after throwing 92 pitches in his first start of the season.

After the Anteaters retire the side, a Colorado Rockies scout sitting behind home plate stuffs his radar gun and notepad into a satchel, saddles it over his arm and heads towards the exit, followed by nine other talent evaluators. Their job for the night is finished with Thurman in the dugout.

Thurman watches the rest of the game standing on the top step of the dugout without a jacket on.

“I’m worried now that I’m calling the pitches,” Bibona admitted. “I don’t want to call a pitch that is going to hurt a guy’s arm. We want to try to compete to win, but we have to be as smart as we can. With a deep pitching staff this year, we won’t have to ride a guy too much.”

Late in the season, Bibona and Gillespie may have no qualms with allowing their ace to register up to 120 or 130 pitches in one evening, but opening night is better served for a light outing.

“First game of the season, we didn’t want to go too far with the pitch count, so 5.2 innings was a good amount. I felt good tonight,” Thurman said after the Anteaters held onto a 6-4 win. “The arm feels good.”

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