<
>

Baseball America weekend preview

2/24/2006

THE COMPLETE PACKAGE

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- After his team's spirited ninth-inning comeback attempt against Nebraska fell short, NC State coach Elliott Avent wanted to speak to one player immediately. Getting up from his stance in the third-base coaching box, Avent looked over the Nebraska players coming out of their dugout and walked right up to Joba Chamberlain.

"You can say what you want about his stuff, but his makeup is off the charts. And he has great stuff," Avent said. "That's what I told him."

Chamberlain held Avent's team, which had scored 105 runs in its first six games, without a run on four hits for 7 1/3 innings in his first start of the year. That same Wolfpack team hung three quick runs on Nebraska's bullpen before the game finished with a 4-3 score, then posted 18 more runs over its next two games.

NC State's offense was good; Chamberlain simply was better. He fired 92- to 96-mph fastballs with pinpoint accuracy, felt the confidence to throw curveballs and sliders for strikes in 3-1 and 3-2 counts, and mixed in his changeup, all while throwing 100 pitches in his season debut.

"In different counts, he'll do things normal pitchers don't do," said NC State third baseman Matt Mangini, who's batting .730 with three home runs and 21 RBI on the year. "He's a pitcher who pitches and doesn't give in."


As impressive as a repertoire that includes four pitches that are at least average is, one National League scouting director in attendance came away with a feeling similar to Avent's.

"His fastball got to 96 three times in the first inning; he showed two good breaking balls; and his changeup wasn't too shabby, either," the veteran scout said. "But he really competed out there. He knew all of us were here, and he knew that team could hit, and he really showed me something the way he competed his first time out. He was so poised."

Chamberlain's success against NC State shouldn't have proved much of a surprise to anyone who remembered his 2005 season. The 6-foot-3 right-hander developed as Nebraska's ace with a 10-2 record and 2.81 ERA with 130 strikeouts in 119 innings to lead the Cornhuskers to a Big 12 regular-season title and their third trip to the College World Series in five years. The Lincoln, Neb., native even started the CWS opener and pitched Nebraska to its first Omaha victory in school history.

His first big win of 2005 came at Rice in his second start of the season. He held the Owls to an unearned run on four hits over 6 1/3 innings and recorded nine strikeouts. He faces Rice again Saturday as Nebraska travels to Houston for the Coca-Cola Classic.

Chamberlain's emergence as that type of ace -- one that figures to be a first-round pick this June -- was one of the season's biggest surprises. It was also a success story that even the pitcher himself wouldn't have believed just three years earlier, when he was playing first and third base at Lincoln's Northeast High.

"If you had told me that [I'd start in the CWS for Nebraska], I would have said 'Can I buy that dream from you? What future planet are you living on?'" Chamberlain said. "As a kid growing up in Nebraska, you can't help but watch college baseball and dream about playing in the College World Series."

Chamberlain's path to fulfilling that dream didn't follow a natural course, although Chamberlain feels his unconventional roots -- in baseball and in life -- have played a major role in helping him develop the poise and competitive nature scouts, coaches and teammates rave about.

Anyone who attended a Nebraska game (or watched on TV) has seen Chamberlain's father, Harlan, clad in Nebraska gear and cheering his son on from his scooter. Harlan has been in the scooter since 1991 because of post-polio syndrome. He raised Joba and Joba's older sister, Trish, as a single parent with an income so limited he often sold his own possessions to provide his children the toys and clothes they wanted.

"I didn't have a lot of things other people had, and my dad gave up a lot for us," Chamberlain said. "My dad has never once complained about anything. I admire that about him. How you're raised is how you become. I'm very thankful and very blessed to be in this situation. I've learned that things in life and in baseball don't come easy."

That's why a pitcher who went 3-2 with a 3.35 ERA in 31 innings as a high school senior -- the most he'd ever pitched in his life -- then 3-6 with a 5.23 ERA at Division II Nebraska-Kearney never gave up his dream of pitching for Nebraska. Sure, he was curious why then Nebraska pitching coach Rob Childress left after two innings the first time Childress came to watch him at Kearney, but Childress eventually saw enough and brought Chamberlain in.

Chamberlain dropped 20 pounds in his first year at Nebraska, and the results were dramatic. He continued reshaping his body after his sophomore season, taming his eating habits and making better choices to trim 15 more pounds (he's listed at 225 pounds) and reduce his body fat. He finished fourth on the Huskers team during fall agility drills. He also worked with new pitching coach Dave Bingham (Childress became Texas A&M's head coach after 2005) to tweak his mechanics, instructions not every pitcher coming off an all-conference season might have wanted to follow.

Chamberlain now lands softer on his front side, which puts less stress on his legs and arm. His arm stroke feels freer, and, combined with the weight loss, he has a better feel in his body to detect mechanical flaws and self-correct them. The results have been increased velocity and better command of his entire repertoire.
"I saw him throwing on the side one day in the fall, and it looked like he was 84-85 [mph] and it turned out he was 94," Nebraska coach Mike Anderson said. "He's just so much freer and looser."

Just like his persona on the mound. Chamberlain knows that if he shows his teammates he's in control, they'll feel more comfortable behind him.

"I'll still show a fist pump every now and then," he said, but he's always working to keep things on an even keel. That extends off the field, as well, where he has become something of a local celebrity. He appreciates all the attention he gets from media and fans. He'll sit for any interview and sign autographs for as many kids as approach him, although he admits he doesn't like to be bothered while he's eating.

Chamberlain's mind-set is encapsulated in a tattoo on his right side that starts just below his armpit and runs down his side, a Bible verse from Galatians 3:28. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."

Chamberlain said there wasn't a long thought process into the inscription's placement. Thinking about it, however, maybe there is some irony in a verse he says reminds him that no one is better than anyone else being written directly below his powerful right arm. One that sets him apart from most other pitchers in the nation.
Not that'd he'd see it that way.

"All offseason, it was Joba this and Joba that," Anderson said. "All the fans are talking about him, and scouts have come to see him. I've seen too many kids get caught up in the hype and blow up. But he wasn't trying to blow up the [radar] gun; he just pitches his game."

Around the nation
• The NCAA released the college basketball Ratings Percentage Index during the regular season for the first time this year. The full report normally is kept secret until schools and conferences receive it upon the season's completion. Damani Leech, the NCAA associate director of baseball, called releasing the baseball RPI during the season a possibility but said the NCAA still needed to check with the Division I baseball committee and the NCAA championships/competition cabinet and make sure the technology would support routine releases.

• Junior Wes Hodges (.414, 1 HR, 6 RBI) played shortstop for Georgia Tech in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader sweep against East Tennessee State. He also played there during the ninth inning of Sunday's win against Kennesaw State. But the preseason All-American moved back to third base for the second game against ETSU. Still, it's a situation worth following. Georgia Tech's coaching staff noted entering the year that replacing All-America shortstop Tyler Greene was its chief concern. Sophomore Michael Fisher, who has played most of the innings at short, is batting .208 with a team-high three errors in 32 defensive chances. Hodges also has committed three errors (in 27 chances), all of which came at third base.

• Rice junior Josh Rodriguez (.267, 2 HR, 10 RBI) hasn't played shortstop since experiencing elbow discomfort after making a relay throw against Texas on Feb. 11. The Owls have kept him in the lineup as a DH and pinch hitter since, and he has delivered both of his home runs and both of his doubles in those roles.

• Arkansas senior center fielder Craig Gentry (.375, 2 RBI) will miss at least two weeks with a broken bone in his left hand. He was hit in the hand during a Feb. 15 practice, but the extent of the injury wasn't known until he had X-rays done after experiencing pain against TCU in last weekend's game, in which he went 3-for-3 before coming out.

• Tulane freshman outfielder Aja Barto (.083, 1 HR, 2 RBI) won't play this weekend when No. 16 Pepperdine comes visiting. He suffered a hairline fracture in his hand when he got hit by a pitch Saturday against Penn State but should be ready to return next weekend against Manhattan. Pepperdine is dealing with an injury of its own: Sophomore center fielder Adrian Ortiz (team-best .414 and four steals) is listed as doubtful with the left wrist injury he suffered against Long Beach State that kept him off the field last weekend.