Hyped hurlers put Aggies high in the polls
Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 22:07
The football team entered the 2011 season ranked No. 9. The men's basketball squad was picked by the Big 12 coaches to finish first in the conference.
Aggie fans may run for cover when the term "preseason poll" rears its ugly head, but the baseball team is slated as the No. 5 team in the nation before a strike is even called.
High off-season hopes in both football and basketball were met with mediocre results on the field and court, so head baseball coach Rob Childress has gone out of his way to ensure his boys aren't buying too much stock in "paper."
"Preseason rankings don't mean anything," Childress said. "They're on paper and they're based on last year's team and who you've got returning. We're not the 2011 team. This 2012 team has got to make its own mark and establish its identity. What is that identity going to be? I don't know, but we'll find out."
Childress may be playing the diplomatic card because the rest of the nation knows exactly where to find this team's identity: on the mound, where two of the country's best hurlers look to brush back opposing batters all season long.
Senior pitcher Ross Stripling and junior pitcher Michael Wacha, two of the Aggies' returning All-Americans, morphed into one of the most lethal Saturday-Sunday combos in collegiate baseball last season. Wacha led the pitching staff with 129.2 innings and 123 strikeouts, and Stripling topped the nation in wins with a shining 14-2 record.
"I don't think there are many coaches across the country who can say they have the one-two punch that we have, guys who can go out there and make innings disappear," Childress said.
The flamethrowers have ascended to the national stage in similar fashions. Wacha came to College Station, Texas, on a small scholarship and took over the Tuesday starting duties his freshman year. His successes prompted Childress to toss him the keys to the Saturday job last season, where he went compiled a 9-4 record and 2.29 ERA.
"Pretty much every pitch has gotten better every year," Stripling said of the 6-foot 6-inch Wacha's repertoire. "He's gotten bigger and stronger so he throws harder now. His changeup dives even more than it used to and not only that but he can put a curveball and a slider with it. It's just incredibly intimidating for a hitter on a Friday night to come in and know they have to face a third-year starter and a future first-rounder."
Stripling showed up just asking for a chance to play, Childress said. His style was unrefined, a hard breaking ball with a few other run-of-the-mill offerings. But Striplin's work ethic, as well as that of the coaching staff, have transformed a pitcher with a pedestrian 6-5 sophomore year record into the winningest hurler in the country.
"I don't even remember Ross throwing a ball last year," Wacha said. "He just throws strikes. He doesn't let free baserunners get on base. That's a big deal because free baserunners end up in runs and whenever you don't allow that, not very many runs are going to get scored off you. He pounds the strike zone and gets guys out by changing speeds."
Stripling described the preseason as an anxious time — that limbo between being crowned conference kings and actually reinforcing people's perceptions with wins. He said he's particularly jazzed to christen the newly minted Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park.
"Just to be on the first team that gets to play here, I think that's a pretty big deal," Stripling said. "And since it's my senior year, I'm really glad I get another year to see it done."
And although the hype surrounding these two has reached a fever pitch, their goals remain as steady as ever.
"We definitely want to end this last season in the Big 12 with a bang," Wacha said. "We want to leave a lasting impression of being the best team in the Big 12 and win that conference championship and tournament."