Carson Cross admits he didn’t have his best stuff during his last outing.
He gave up five hits — three of them doubles — and three walks over six innings, and found himself in trouble more than once.
The worst was the third inning, when the Auburn Doubledays had the bases loaded with just one out.
But Cross, a 24-year-old right-handed starter who is the second-oldest player currently on the State College Spikes’ roster, didn’t panic.
While a strikeout would have been optimal, Cross looked to make the batter uncomfortable.
He delivered a pitch in on the hands, and Sheldon Neuse hit a pop foul to first baseman Ryan McCarvel for the second out.
“That was a big pitch in the game,” manager Johnny Rodriguez said. “They get a hit there, it changes.”
A strikeout finished the inning. He ended up allowing just one run during his outing on the mound last Saturday.
Cross is in his second season for the Spikes and second as a pro pitcher. The Spikes open a three-game homestand at 7:05 p.m. Thursday against Mahoning Valley.
His numbers this season are not as good as last year, but he is learning how to manage games and use his brain on the mound.
“Carson is a really hard worker,” Spikes pitching coach Darwin Marrero said. “He’s hungry for learning, hungry to get the information. This is the kind of guy I consider a gamer because even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, he still gives the chance to the team to win.”
Of course, it helped that State College was already leading 7-0 when Auburn had the bases loaded during his last outing. The Spikes went on to win 10-3.
That takes a little of the pressure off, but it was still a challenge.
Cross knew what he had to do when Neuse stepped to the plate.
“You don’t want them to be able to loft the ball into the outfield,” Cross said. “You try to jam in, keep offspeed (pitches) down, get them to chase. They’re trying to drive the runs in, so keep the pressure on them, and give them a pitch that they can’t do what they want to do with it.”
While Cross may be an old man on the roster, Marrero doesn’t align age with wisdom. He’s met plenty of 40-year-olds who can be lacking.
But Cross has smarts to go with his arsenal of pitches.
“He finds a way,” Marrero said. “His ability is better than his stuff. … He’s a hard worker, and he finds a way.”
Cross is already a trailblazer of sorts.
He comes from New Hampshire — not exactly a hotbed of baseball talent. According to baseballreference.com, 51 major leaguers were born in the state — ever.
The only current major leaguer is Pittsburgh Pirates starter Jeff Locke. The biggest names are pitchers Mike Flanagan, Brian Wilson, Bob Tewksbury and former St. Louis Cardinal Chris Carpenter, whom Cross has met.
“I kind of looked up to him when I was a kid,” the native of Brentwood, N.H., said. “To be able to meet him and talk baseball with him is pretty cool.”
Cross was among a handful of New Hampshire players who landed Division I scholarships. Growing up, options were a little limited for extensive youth ball. The AAU program he joined was not that big, but it has grown since he left. The state also now has two teams in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England, which started in 2011. Despite its longer winters, the baseball opportunities are growing in the state.
Cross went on to play at Connecticut, and he didn’t know how limited he had things until he left home.
“We didn’t play as much as a kid, but we didn’t know anything else,” Cross said. “Once you get here and you play with kids who’ve come from Florida and Texas, they play baseball all the time.”
However, as Marrero pointed out, being a native of the north limits batters and fielders, who can hone their skills year-round in the south, more than pitchers, who need the offseason rest.
The 6-foot-5 Cross was the ace of the UConn staff by his senior year, posting a 10-2 record with a 2.29 ERA, recording 108 strikeouts against 25 walks and limiting opposing hitters to a .206 batting average against him.
However, after being picked in the 14th round last June by the Cardinals, he could not pitch much with the Spikes. He threw 106 innings as a senior, so he only threw 43 1/3 innings during last season with State College, leaving him just a fraction shy of 150 innings for the year. That was a lot for his young arm.
“I was tired,” Cross said. “Significantly different.”
However, he was 3-2 with a 2.70 ERA last year as a Spike, with a 1.15 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched). This season, in 30 2/3 innings, he is 2-2 with a 3.82 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. Batters hit .247 against him last season, and are hitting .280 against him this year.
“You’ve got to be more on top of your game every time you pitch to hitters in pro ball,” Cross said. “The swings are a little bit higher caliber. They’ll do more with your mistakes than in college.”
He has three pitches at his disposal: A four-seam fastball, a slider and a split-finger change-up, the latter he was taught by Marrero.
He had a sinker-change in college, but it wasn’t always reliable. Cross and Marrero experimented with different deliveries and grips, and quickly found the split-change as a perfect match.
“At this point I consider that his best pitch,” Marrero said. “It’s a plus-pitch at this point. He can pitch in the big leagues with that pitch right now.”
Cross said he has used it in a number of tricky situations, including when he had the bases loaded in his last outing, and another time when it turned into a double play.
“I like it a lot,” Cross said. “I think I threw it quite a bit (last week). I got a lot of ground balls on it.”
He may be spending a second season in State College — he would have rather moved up the ladder — but he is learning. Not only does he have a new pitch, he is also getting better at handling difficult situations, and how to handle things when he’s not at his best.
“It’s easy to pitch when everything is (going) your way,” Marrero said. “What about, ‘I didn’t have a good night last night.’ What about, ‘I couldn’t find my changeup.’ You still give six, seven strong innings.”
Even if his numbers are not as good this year, he still has pitched at least five innings in each outing, and even went eight frames in a loss.
How to deal with tough situations is just as important as how to throw a fastball.
“He competes,” Rodriguez said. “Which is who he is. He fights through everything.”