Improved staff fuels winning ways

In Joe Durant’s 11 previous years as head coach, FAMU baseball teams have reached the .500 mark only once, in 1991.

With a 19-19 record heading into Wednesday’s game against South Alabama, the Rattlers have turned to an unusual source-strong starting pitching -in their bid for a winning record and an NCAA bid.

“This is one of the better staffs I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Durant said.

The staff’s Big Three, returning senior Andy Pace, emerging staff ace Mike Connell and Tallahassee native Mike Sills have teamed with freshman Levron Sarauw to give the Rattlers what pitching coach Brett Richardson calls “four good starters.”

Richardson, a starting catcher at FAMU from 1990-1993, said the current staff far outpaces the pitchers he played with.

“When I played, we had about two guys that could throw the ball. The rest were project guys,” Richardson said. “We’ve got about five or six guys now that can really throw the ball.”

Although the team’s ERA stands at a bloated 5.27, Connell leads the Rattlers with a 3.88 ERA in 10 starts. The 6’1, 175 pound.right-hander, though not a power pitcher, has used his slider and late-breaking curve to rack up 61 strikeouts in 69 innings while leading the team in innings pitched. With a similar build and solid control, Connell acknowledged patterning himself after Atlanta Braves star Greg Maddux.

“I like Maddux because he doesn’t throw too hard, he’s not Randy Johnson, but he gets the job done,” Connell said.

Undrafted out of nearby Wakulla High, Connell spent two years at North Florida CC before joining the team. Connell said FAMU was the only school to offer him a scholarship.

After rough early outings against Mercer and Jacksonville, Connell turned the corner against Illinois-Chicago, pitching eight scoreless innings in a no-decision. Connell’s finest performance came against North Carolina A&T, where he struck out 13 Aggies in a 3-0 shutout.

“This is a guy here, if he was about 200 pounds and threw about five miles per hour faster, he’d be a first round draft pick,” Richardson said.

Sills pitched on the state championship Leon High School team in 1998. Three players from that team went to FSU on scholarship. The following year, Sills competed for the top spot on the Leon staff and drew the attention of pro scouts.

The Texas Rangers drafted Sills in the 43rd round of the major league baseball draft in 1999. When the team didn’t offer Sills any signing bonus money, he opted to enroll at Central Florida CC. As a kid, the left-handed Sills dreamed of pitching for FSU. Like the other starters, he has his eye on the upcoming game against the Seminoles.

“I’m definitely excited,” Sills said. “I’d love to get that start.”

Sills came to FAMU because he said he knew he would get a lot of innings. Like Connell, Sills relies on finesse, with an 84-87 mph fastball and a darting changeup as an out pitch. Sills’ season has been plagued by no-decisions and tough losses, including a recent 3-2 setback to conference rival Norfolk State.

Last season, Pace struggled with a 2-8 record. Pace’s ERA is slightly higher this year, but he has already doubled his win total, benefiting from higher run support. Last season, FAMU scored only 57 runs in Pace’s 13 appearances.

Three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Pace’s velocity has declined. A pitcher who models himself after Roger Clemens and still primarily leans on his fastball, Pace has developed a nasty curve to throw at hitters.

“I lost speed. I threw 92 to 93 mph before the Tommy John surgery,” Pace said. “Now I throw 87-88 mph on a good day.”

Derrick Lewis and Robert Averette were the last FAMU pitchers drafted, with Lewis picked by Atlanta and Averette by Cincinnati in 1997.

Richardson believes there may be a professional pitcher or two among the current staff. Pace has been contacted by the Montgomery Wings of the Independent League, and Sills is convinced, with another year of experience, that he might get a higher draft slot and an eventual shot at the major leagues.

“That’s my dream. I want to get drafted,” Sills said. “I’d love to do it as a career. I think that’s every kid’s dream.”