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Lions 9 Sharpen Claws for NCAA Regionals : Loyola Looks for Big Game From Hurler Steve Surico in Opener Against Arkansas

Times Staff Writer

For a pitcher with one of the top records on the West Coast, who ranked among the high school elite in baseball scouts’ eyes two years ago, Steve Surico sometimes gets little respect.

The Nevada-Reno baseball team treated him rudely. A week later, so did Santa Clara. At times his body hasn’t treated him well.

And Loyola Marymount baseball Coach Dave Snow’s comments haven’t always been kind. Like this one: “As far as the mental aspect of pitching, he has a long way to go. A long way.”

But everyone around the Lions agrees that for the team to make any noise in the NCAA Regionals, which they open 11 a.m. Friday against Arkansas, Surico must rise to form, much as Tim Layana did in 1986 when he set a Loyola record for victories and led the Lions to the College World Series.

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Surico was recruited out of Tustin High School that same spring and was brought in as successor to Layana, the left-handed fireballer who was probably the best-known pitching prospect ever recruited at Loyola. Surico decided to forgo the professional draft, though he would have been a probable first-round choice. Last week, Surico was named the team’s most valuable pitcher by his teammates.

But the Orange County player of the year found the road to stardom bumpy. Starting his first summer and again in Snow’s fall training program, the freshman developed lower back problems that threatened his season. A recurring injury that Surico said he had always shrugged off previously turned out to be several minute fractures in the spine. Snow was set to redshirt his prize recruit.

Surico found a therapy that allowed him to return to throwing, but he never found his form that season. He fashioned a 5-4 record, but had an earned run average of 7.12 and surrendered more runs than strikeouts--a new experience for a player who had a 0.58 ERA his senior year in high school while striking out 159 batters in fewer than 100 innings.

“His back problems really did set him back to a great degree,” Snow said. “When he came back, he basically was out of shape and overweight from not having done much for a couple months, and it was a struggle. It’s really like he’s a year behind.”

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“That summer I was playing golf. I over-swung, and it (his back) started to hurt,” Surico recalled recently. “Then in a game, somebody hit a come-backer, and (in fielding it) I felt it, it hurt pretty bad. I went to the Olympic Festival but had to come home. I figured, give it two weeks. After five months of laying off, it scared me.”

His sophomore season has been closer to the script and has closely paralleled Loyola’s--a flying start, late slump, then a last-minute surge.

While waiting to hear where the Lions would be sentby the NCAA, Surico was on hold with a record of 11-2, with 84 strikeouts in 90 innings and 3 complete games in 18 starts. The less impressive numbers--an ERA of 5.70 and 65 walks.

Surico got off to an 8-0 start, then suffered a strained back ligament--not related to the previous injury--and was rocked twice when he came back, failing to make it through the third inning against Nevada-Reno and Santa Clara.

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But he had an impressive three-inning stint in a shutout of Cal State Long Beach, and in his last start he beat West Coast Athletic Conference champion Pepperdine.

“After the (recent) injury, I just didn’t pitch as often as I liked. What hurt was going out after two innings,” he said. “Against Reno I felt I was pitching OK, and against Santa Clara I felt I was throwing pretty good, I was just missing. But I didn’t have my curve.

“Against Long Beach I worked on the curve and made sure I got it over. I had a chance to watch Pepperdine a few times before I pitched and it looked like they were having trouble with off-speed stuff, so I threw the curve a lot. Luckily, I got it over.

“I thought I had some unlucky innings. My ERA is not the greatest, but the Pepperdine game’s an example: I pitched eight good innings, then gave up six runs in the ninth. My won-loss record tells you how many times I kept the team in the game. If I was a little more consistent, I would’ve been happier, but (with) the improvement from this year to last year, I’m happy.”

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Snow will be even happier if Surico ever calls on his talent for a long stretch. Snow likes to teach the subtle use of off-speed pitches--he has Surico throwing a slower curve than when he came out of high school--but both agree the 6-foot-3, 180-pounder is a power pitcher who has only overpowered college opponents sporadically.

With that in mind, Surico will spend the summer playing in the Alaskan semi-pro league, where several Loyola players have blossomed into All-Americans. Surico, who still has professional aspirations, admitted his game tends to fall off when he doesn’t play regularly. Last summer he didn’t. He also wants to work on a strength program.

“My fastball kind of declined after high school,” Surico said. “Maybe (playing in Alaska) will put a few miles on it. I’d like to get my fastball to where it was. In high school I was a big power pitcher. I threw everything hard.”

Snow said: “This year he’s come along. When he’s thrown games he’s dominated, his curve’s been sharp. The velocity will come as he keeps pitching and improves his mechanics.

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“To me, it’s (a matter of) developing him to a point where he’s more consistent. He’s had some real good games and some disappointing ones. Steve gets caught up in mechanics, then a game gets by him. He has to get more discipline. So far he’s done it in bits and spurts.

“There’s a whole lot more in that arm than anybody’s seen.”


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