Baseball America weekend preview

Nebraska's Joba Chamberlain has coaches talking about his poise and scouts raving about his pitching repertoire, writes Baseball America's Will Kimmey.

Updated: February 24, 2006, 2:33 PM ET
By Will Kimmey | Baseball America

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."

Top 25 Schedule
• Mercer at No. 1 Clemson
• George Washington at No. 4 North Carolina
• Villanova at No. 7 Texas
• No. 9 Cal State Fullerton at/vs./vs. UCLA
• No. 16 Pepperdine at No. 10 Tulane
• Marist at No. 11 Mississippi State
• Duquesne at No. 13 South Carolina
• Minnesota at No. 14 Florida State
• No. 15 San Diego at Georgia
• Louisiana Tech at No. 17 Arkansas
• Illinois-Chicago at No. 18 Long Beach State
• Temple at No. 19 Louisiana State
• Wright State at No. 21 TCU
• Santa Clara at No. 22 Cal Poly
• Maine at No. 23 Mississippi
• No. 24 USC at Hawaii
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."

Top 25 Tournaments
Pepsi Baseball Classic, Gainesville, Fla.
No. 2 Florida
No. 12 Missouri
Ohio State
Wake Forest

Baseball at the Beach, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Coastal Carolina
No. 3 Georgia Tech
No. 6 Tennessee
Virginia Commonwealth

Coca-Cola Classic, Houston
No. 25 Nebraska
No. 5 Rice
St. John's
Texas State

River City Classic, Davis and Sacramento, Calif.
UC Davis
North Dakota State
No. 8 Oregon State
Sacramento State
St. Mary's
San Francisco
Washington State

Keith LeClair Classic, Greenville, N.C.
East Carolina
UNC Wilmington
No. 20 NC State
Penn State
Virginia Tech
West Virginia

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.

Meaningful matchup
A week after Nebraska's Joba Chamberlain faced NC State, another first round-caliber right-hander from the Midwest meets a powerful East Coast offense. This time it's Missouri's Max Scherzer bringing his mid-90s b.b.'s to Gainesville to face No. 2 Florida. Three of the first four hitters in the Gators lineup -- juniors Adam Davis, Matt LaPorta and Brian Jeroloman -- played with Scherzer on Team USA over the summer, with Jeroloman catching Scherzer. The great pitcher beat the great hitters a week ago, and we'll see whether that adage holds true once again.
Upset city
The pick this week isn't a city but a mascot, and we like Bulldogs of all types to play the role of underdog.

Start with Fresno State to knock off Stanford at home. The FSU Bulldogs got swept to open the year but are 6-3 since and can put up plenty of runs. Now, Stanford has won five of its six games against Cal State Fullerton and Texas, but the Cardinal has experienced trouble getting on the scoreboard, a 13-9 decision Monday against Texas notwithstanding.

It's fun to call Gonzaga the Zags, but the team also is the Bulldogs, and we like these Dogs to cross their state and get two wins at Washington this weekend. At 7-2, Gonzaga already has beaten two Pac-10 teams: Arizona State and Oregon State.

This pick leaves us the least comfortable, but how about Georgia's Bulldogs grabbing a pair of home games against cross-country-traveling San Diego? While we're at it, let's go ahead with Gardner-Webb's Bulldogs to grab two games at their weekend tournament, in which the team will face Charleston Southern, Virginia and Hofstra.

In the dugout
Sophomore Pat Venditte is listed on Creighton's roster as "RHP/LHP," and he worked as both in the same two-inning outing last weekend in a 3-2 loss to Illinois-Chicago. Venditte threw two scoreless innings, striking out the side in the seventh inning -- throwing right-handed, left-handed, then right-handed again.

Q: When did you start throwing with both arms?
A: I started throwing with both arms when I was 3, but in games, since I was 7 or 8. Everything else I do is right-handed. My dad started me doing that when I was 3. He saw I was naturally right-handed and started me throwing left-handed, too. It's pretty much second nature now. In high school, I just switched [between throwing right- and left-handed] every other batter regardless of which hand they were to keep hitters off balance. They'd see two different kinds of fastballs each time through the lineup. Here, I'm just middle relief, I don't have to worry about that as much.

Q: What do you do against switch hitters?
A: Once I step on the rubber, that's basically the hand I have to use. In the end, [the hitter] gets to decide. I could throw one pitch and then he could switch around. Once I step on the rubber, that's what hand I have to stay with. Normally, I just choose whichever way he's worse. In high school one time, me and a hitter spent about 30 seconds both switching back and forth before the umpire finally made him go left-handed. I pitched left-handed, so I had the advantage there.

Q: Do you have to use two different gloves?
A: When I was 7 or 8, they called Mizuno's headquarters in Osaka, Japan, and ordered a special glove for me. It's got two thumbs and a pocket in the middle. They took molds of my hand and everything, and I've just gotten larger sizes as needed. It has my name on it, but it's not like a signature model.

Q: What kind of reactions do you get? Do people think you're weird?
A: It's kind of second nature to me. I put up zeros; that's all that really matters. It throws hitters off a little bit; it gives you a mental edge. But they see it and adjust to it. It makes them take a second look.