NO RELIEF IN SIGHT : Splitting Time Between the Mound and Outfield Makes Rick Hirtensteiner a Busy Man at Pepperdine

Times Staff Writer

"Now pitching: Rick Hirtensteiner."

Those are words that first-year Pepperdine baseball Coach Andy Lopez had hoped he wouldn't hear. Before the season Lopez asked Hirtensteiner, a three-year starter in the outfield, to give relief pitching a try. And he is glad--though sometimes worried--that the senior consented.

Hirtensteiner's name has usually meant offense in his four seasons with the Waves. Through last week, he was the school career leader in runs, with 208, and doubles, with 56. He is also among the top five in several other offensive categories.

As a senior at Buena High he was drafted by the Houston Astros, and last year he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. But those major league clubs were interested in his potential as a hitter and outfielder.

He is batting better than .350 and playing well in center field, but he has also been one of Pepperdine's top short relievers; the kind of pitcher that comes in for an inning or two, throws strikes and snuffs out rallies.

In his first eight relief appearances covering 12-plus innings, he is 2-1 with two saves and has an earned-run average of 2.21. Two weekends ago he suffered his first loss of the season when he gave up a three-run homer in a brief appearance at Nevada Reno. Before he gave up the home run, his ERA was 0.75.

His hitting--and his pitching--have been big reasons why the Waves, after a 4-6 start, rebounded to win 24 of their next 32 games (including a tie) and move into first place in the West Coast Athletic Conference.

Hirtensteiner, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound left-handed batter and thrower, is no stranger to pitching.

He was a pitcher at times at Buena High and was 5-1 as a starter in his senior year. In his first three years at Pepperdine, he did spot relieving for Coach Dave Gorrie, who retired from coaching after last year.

Hirtensteiner also was no stranger to Lopez as far as pitching is concerned.

The first time Lopez saw Hirtensteiner was when Lopez was coaching at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The Waves and Dominguez Hills were tied, 2-2, in the ninth inning when Hirtensteiner came in and got a batter to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Lopez remembered that when he came to Pepperdine, and he asked Hirtensteiner if he would help the team by making a few more mound appearances.

"I didn't mind," Hirtensteiner said. "For my first three years, I pitched a little bit, maybe 10 to 15 innings a year. I already have that many innings this year.

"I definitely enjoy it. I like to have the game in my hands, and I'm more into the game. There's not a lot of action in the outfield. Being a hitter, I think I have an advantage as a pitcher--I know what hitters are looking for in certain situations."

Lopez knew he would be looking for Hirtensteiner often in certain situations--like when the Waves are up by a run and the opponents have two runners on base in the last inning. The need for strong relief pitching is underscored by the fact that in most of their 13 losses, the Waves were ahead going into the sixth inning.

But the Pepperdine coach isn't crazy about depending on Hirtensteiner as his stopper.

"If I had my way, I wouldn't like him to do both things (play the outfield and pitch)," Lopez said.

"He has a chance to play professionally, and I hold my breath that he is going to hurt something because he hasn't had enough time to get ready to pitch. I cringe occasionally and keep my fingers crossed that nothing is going to happen to him.

"He's our leadoff hitter, and he sometimes has to get loose in the bullpen between innings," Lopez added.

When Pepperdine is in the field, Lopez continued, "I'd rather have someone on the bench get ready to pitch rather than having to wave at our center fielder to come in. But Rick is competitive, is in great shape and takes care of himself."

Hirtensteiner said that it "is hard to get ready to pitch. I go down to the bullpen real quick between innings, and then I might have to hit sooner than I expected. It's tough to get loose that way."

He said that having to pitch sometimes detracts from his hitting. "If I'm warming up in the bullpen it's hard to change one thing for another, to get mentally ready to hit," said Hirtensteiner, who was batting .359 with 48 runs and 20 extra-base hits at the beginning of the week.

Hirtensteiner isn't worried that pitching will hurt his prospects for a major league career.

"I don't think pitching is going to hurt my chances," he said. "I think it's good when you can do something extra."

He said that position players Jose Oquendo of the St. Louis Cardinals and Danny Heep of the Boston Red Sox add to their value because they are able to pitch.

Hirtensteiner isn't the only player to chip in something extra to help Pepperdine. And if Coach Lopez has sometimes suffered anxiety attacks over using Hirtensteiner in relief, he is also relieved that he has been able to use him as a pitcher.

"The biggest trait that attracted me about him is that it's hard to hide a coward on the mound--and he is far from a coward," Lopez said. "He has the mind-set that he wants to be out there, and that's half the battle.

"He has real good arm strength. He has a fastball, a curve and plays around with a changeup. He throws low strikes and is aggressive. I feel a lot better with him on the mound, and I think his teammates do too."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World