By Rob Moseley
Like any catcher worth his mitt, Chase wants to be on the same page with his pitcher. So it was a touch unsettling a week ago, with left-hander Tommy Thorpe on the mound Thursday against Washington State, to have Thorpe shake off – or “wipe” – the slider Chase called for, in favor of a curveball.
The slider, after all, was Thorpe’s preferred secondary pitch. Thorpe’s curveball has been hit-or-miss for much of the junior’s career. What was going on?
“But I think it struck the guy out,” Chase recalled with a smile Tuesday. “So I’m OK with that.”
What was going on was Thorpe’s continued confidence in the curveball, confidence he’ll take into his next start, in this weekend’s showdown for the No. 19 Ducks against No. 5 Oregon State. The Ducks (31-10, 10-5 Pac-12) face the Beavers (27-7, 11-4) on Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., both on Pac-12 Networks, then Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPNU.
Oregon takes a nine-game win streak into the series, having already dispatched of one rival in the top half of the conference standings, the Cougars, with a sweep last week. As Horton pointed out, that momentum may not be worth all that much given that the Ducks have to face OSU ace Ben Wetzler (6-1, 0.68 ERA) on Friday.
But Oregon’s own ace, Thorpe, has allowed just one earned run over his last three starts, spanning 19 2/3 innings. That owes in no small part to the reemergence of the curveball, which Thorpe used to devastating effect in scoreless seven-inning performances against UC Riverside and WSU the past two weeks.
“It makes him a lot different,” Chase said. “His slider’s nice and hard, and it’s got good spin on it. And the curveball’s much slower. It’s a lot more effective against left-handers, especially.”
The curveball was actually Thorpe’s breaking ball of choice coming out of Evergreen High in Vancouver, Wash. But the UO staff encouraged him to develop a slider, and Thorpe used a fastball-slider combination to become the Ducks’ top setup man as a freshman in 2012.
Thorpe joined the starting rotation as a sophomore, and Horton would call for the occasional curveball. If Thorpe’s feel for the pitch wasn’t there – if Thorpe left it up out of the zone, or spiked it in front of the plate -- it might literally be the one lone curve he threw for an entire start.
It’s been a different story the past two weeks. Following starts against both UC Riverside and WSU, Thorpe commented on how well the curve felt coming off his fingers.
“I’ve lately been able to place it like I did in high school,” said Thorpe (6-3, 2.26). “The past few games it’s been in the zone, right where it needs to be.”
The curve might not be anything that catches the Beavers off-guard. Last season, when Thorpe threw eight shutout innings to beat Oregon State, he threw it to OSU’s top slugger, Michael Conforto, with a 3-2 count.
The result: a strikeout of the player now leading the Pac-12 in both batting average (.408) and runs (38).
“He hadn’t seen it, and I think it kind of froze him a little bit,” Thorpe said. “It was up a little bit, and then it dropped right into the zone.”
Thorpe’s confidence in the curve is such that he isn’t much worried that OSU might anticipate the pitch as part of his repertoire Friday. Yes, the Beavers have a pretty good ace in Wetzler, but Thorpe’s pitching with the confidence of a No. 1 guy, too, in part because of the improved curveball.
“I’m just there to throw and pitch with the mindset I’ve always pitched with – I’m going to get you out no matter what,” Thorpe said. “It’s not a cocky feeling. It’s more, confident but also humble. That’s how I pitch.”