UNIVERSITY PARK — Where did you go to school?
Sorry kid, never heard of it.
Pretty short for a pitcher, aren’t you?
You were drafted in what round? Didn’t know there were that many.
That’s what has been cluttering the mind of Kevin Herget since he arrived in State College.
The 5-foot-10 right-hander from Division-III Kean University in New Jersey has a chip on his shoulder.
“The whole time I’ve been here, so far I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to prove myself because I’m a 39th-round pick, from a D-III school, not tall and don’t really throw exceptionally hard.”
Herget was the 1,175 pick out of 1,216 players drafted in June. Now, he is just one of three leading the New York-Penn League in wins with four.
But before we anoint him minor league baseball’s version of ‘Rudy,’ an honest answer brings perspective.
“I vultured those first three wins,” Herget said with a smile.
Humility is the proper prescription because his learning curve is steep. Not only must he adjust to better talent, Herget must also attack the mound cerebrally in a way he never has, and also quiet his inner monologue so it doesn’t muddle his mind.
Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Auburn was undeniably his strongest outing and a nice rebound from his poorest nearly a week earlier.
A glut of run support — 43 hits, 27 runs — in his first three appearances helped notch victories despite average appearances.
Leaving balls up in the zone led to 12 hits and four runs in those first 9 2/3 innings, and when a fastball tops out around 90-92 mph and is elevelated — hitters race to the batter’s box to face you.
Against the Doubledays, however, Herget was more effective. He kept the ball down, which allowed him to work from ahead. In turn, he threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 19 batters he faced. He also used his fastball the first time through the order to setup his off-speed pitches for later innings.
The chess match is something new to Herget because in college, coaches called pitches from the dugout. The onus in professional baseball is on pitcher and catcher.
“That’s why sometimes he doesn’t think about what he’s going to throw,” said Spikes’ pitching coach Dernier Orozco. “The catcher puts something down, he just says ‘yes’ and throws it. That’s a part of the game he has to learn a little bit more to be effective.”
Herget said this week is the most comfortable he’s been shaking off his catcher. When the Spikes went up 4-0 against Auburn, catcher Luke Voit requested fastballs to force hitters to earn their way on base. However, his pitcher declined in favor of the change-up — his strongest pitch. The result was over aggressive hitters, who were expecting heat, lunging at slower pitches.
Trouble areas still persist, but seem to reside less in Herget’s right arm as much as his mind. When the bases are empty opponents are hitting .478 (11-for-23) when leading off innings. In contrast, they are hitting .182 with runners in scoring position and two outs. It seems counterintuitive, but Herget said he relaxes more and clears his mind when in a tough spot.
“I was taught when you get in trouble you have to back off a little bit, calm down and throw strikes, not to strike people out, but to get ground balls to minimize damage,” he said. “That’s what I need to do throughout the game instead of just in those situations.”
Quieting the mind should not only allow for better game management, but it should also help Herget advantageously wield the chip on his shoulder instead of it overwhelming his thought processes.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is trying to overthrow and blow it by hitters … I’m not throwing 100. I’m throwing 90 maybe.
“I want to prove people wrong,” said Herget, a fan of sub 6-foot major league pitcher Tim Lincecum. “People were even doubting I was going to get drafted … I’m here to prove people wrong and show that I can hold my own here.
“This past week I just thought, ‘I’m here so I deserve to be here so just go throw and pitch and don’t really think about the pressure’ … and that was big for me.”
It may sound strange to hear a player taken in the 39th of 40 rounds referencing pressure, but that’s how badly he wants to succeed.
As the last day of the draft dragged on and opportunities dwindled, Herget tried to stay busy. Only the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals showed any interest, but there were certainly no guarantees.
As a fall back in case baseball passed him by, Herget took a job coaching 14 and 15-year-olds at the East Coast Baseball Academy near his hometown, Park Ridge, N.J.
“I was checking (on the draft) throughout the day but tried to keep myself busy … I was trying to keep my mind off it. I got home (after practice) and it was like the 35th round I was like maybe it’s not in the cards for me.”
Then he received a text from Cardinals area scout Sean Moran and minutes later the long wait was over.
“Surreal,” he said with a smile.
“It stunk in a way,” he said of anxiously waiting through 39 rounds. “But I don’t think it really matters what round you go as long as you get the opportunity and then when you get here you prove yourself.”