Timing can be everything, and Jered Weaver seems to have made the most of each moment in becoming the toast of college baseball.
Weaver, ace of the pitching staff for No. 7-ranked Long Beach State, recently had the kind of day that aspiring major leaguers dream about. He was on the mound March 12 at new Petco Park in San Diego for a tournament game against UCLA.
Looking far more imposing than his rail-thin, 6-foot-7, 205-pound frame might indicate, the junior right-hander dominated the Bruins with a one-hit, 15-strikeout performance over eight scoreless innings.
Among the slack-jawed in attendance were San Diego Padre General Manager Kevin Towers and scouting director Bill Gayton, whose team has the first pick in the June draft.
“Two words,” UCLA Coach Gary Adams said. “Awesome and phenomenal. You had the GM there and all the scouts, and he got up for it. Didn’t faze him.”
Good timing? Sure. But Weaver is creating his own good fortune seemingly each time he pitches.
Only three years after Mark Prior dazzled college baseball with a season for the ages, Weaver is approaching -- in some ways surpassing -- what the former USC pitcher did in his junior year when he was 15-1 with a 1.69 earned-run average and had 202 strikeouts in 138 2/3 innings.
Weaver is 8-0 with an 0.64 earned-run average in eight starts. Opposing batters are hitting .118 and have struck out 89 times in his 56 2/3 innings, numbers that observers say are incomprehensible at a level ruled by offense and the aluminum bat.
The comparisons to Prior, who many consider the best collegiate pitcher of all time, were inevitable.
“It’s a great compliment, especially with what he’s doing in the big leagues now,” Weaver said. “I wouldn’t mind being him.”
The strength of June’s draft is in the number of high-quality college pitchers available and Weaver has jumped to the front of the pack. Baseball America magazine projected him as the No. 1 overall pick in its midseason update, which would make him a Padre. And although Towers isn’t tipping his hand, he admitted Weaver was “definitely somebody on our radar screen” in an interview with a San Diego newspaper after the UCLA game.
With all the fuss over his spectacular start and the speculation about his bright future, the former Simi Valley High star revels in the moment -- and quickly moves on to the next.
“It’s definitely amazing so far,” Weaver said. “I’m just trying to keep it up. I just want to keep my team in games, win the Big West [Conference] and then get to Omaha [for the College World Series]. All that other stuff will be there.”
His outing against UCLA, although a highlight, has also been par for the course.
After blanking Cal over seven innings in his first start, Weaver faced USC before a capacity crowd in Long Beach’s home opener and struck out the first 10 Trojans he faced.
For anyone who thought that might be a once-in-a-lifetime performance, he repeated the feat against Brigham Young three starts later.
“Some pitchers do that once in a season,” Long Beach Coach Mike Weathers said. “Or there might be two or four tremendous outings like that.
“It’s been every game with Jered.”
Said USC Coach Mike Gillespie: “He was sensational. What was unbelievable was that he was that good that early in the year.”
There have been no signs of a drop-off. In his most recent start, Wednesday against Wichita State, he struck out 16 -- all but two of the outs over six innings -- in a 10-1 victory.
Gene Stephenson, who coached current Dodger Darren Dreifort, said it was the most dominating performance against his team in 27 years with the Shockers.
“There was nothing we could do,” Stephenson said. “He could have struck out 25 if they had left him in there.”
Weaver overwhelms batters with a fastball between 89 and 94 mph, a sharp slider and an improving curveball all thrown with the same three-quarter arm delivery. .
He also has a fiery streak that is revealed with a fist pump or yell after a strikeout that ends an inning or a long at-bat.
Said Arizona Coach Andy Lopez, whose team was shut out over seven innings: “I’d take a guy like that on my side. You want someone with that kind of confidence.”
Weathers and 49er assistant Troy Buckley said their pitcher views the mound as his property -- and dares anyone to take it from him.
“To me, it’s like sacred ground,” Weaver said. “You don’t want anyone to walk on it. I’m a mellow guy, but when I get on that mound I’m the biggest competitor in terms of trying to keep my team in the game.
“It’s just my style. If someone is heckling me and I strike them out, I’m going to let them know about it.”
Buckley, who handles the Long Beach pitching staff, said Weaver has channeled those emotions and worked on his mental approach.
“He’s grown a lot from last year,” Buckley said. “He’s to the point where he repeats his delivery and he’s able to add velocity when he wants to and take some off and he put his pitches exactly where he wants them.
“There’s probably 20 starts in a season. You might have lights-out stuff in five of them. Then you’ll have three or four of them where you’re probably going to have nothing. That’s when you really have got to pitch, and he’s been able to do that.”
Coming off a sophomore season in which he went 14-4 with a 1.96 ERA and 144 strikeouts, Weaver pitched for the U.S. national team over the summer on a staff that included another possible No. 1 draft pick, Justin Verlander of Old Dominion, and other projected first-rounders Huston Street of Texas and Justin Orenduff of Virginia Commonwealth.
Weaver established himself as the team’s ace by going 45 2/3 innings without giving up a run -- a record for USA Baseball -- before the streak was snapped by Cuba in the the Pan American Games’ gold-medal game. It was his only loss of the summer.
Many college baseball observers have pointed to that experience as a significant step in his development. Some believe that Weaver is close to being ready for the major leagues.
“If you put him in a big-league game tomorrow, I think he could handle himself pretty well,” said South Carolina Coach Ray Tanner, who led the U.S. team. “His stay in the minors will be very short.”
Weaver’s career path is mirroring that of his older brother, Jeff, a former All-American and first-round pick out of Fresno State who joined the Dodgers during the off-season. Separated by six years, they closely resemble each other on and off the mound.
Jeff Weaver needed less than a year to make his major-league debut with the Detroit Tigers. Jered has learned from his brother’s experiences.
“I remember a lot of phone calls and stuff that [draft] year,” Jered said. “He had to stay focused. Like now, you deal with stuff when the time comes.”
That will be Weaver’s approach in the coming months: Appreciate the moment and seize the opportunity -- whether it’s pitching in front of the large crowd that is expected Friday night when the 49ers (18-7) play at archrival Cal State Fullerton, or in a tense postseason game in June.
Speculation comes like one of his blazing fastballs. Could he go undefeated this year? Could he supplant Prior as king of the college level? Will he return to Petco Park in a San Diego uniform in 2005 -- or even late 2004?
Like everything else, Weaver will deal with all that when the time is right. “It’s great that people think like that,” he said. “When the time comes, then we’ll see what happens.”
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Statistics support the dominating season of Jered Weaver, above, at Long Beach State:
*--* Year W-L IP ERA H R ER BB SO Opp. BA 2004 8-0 56.2 0.64 22 4 4 8 89 118
A look at Jered Weaver’s career at Long Beach State. Weaver is a junior this season:
*--* Year W-L IP ERA H R ER BB SO BA 2002 8-4 92.2 4.37 80 46 45 32 74 230 2003 14-4 133.1 1.96 87 35 29 20 144 182 2004 8-0 56.2 0.64 22 4 4 8 89 118 Total 30-8 282.2 2.48 189 85 78 60 307 NA
Mark Prior’s junior season at USC:
*--* 2001 15-1 138.2 1.69 100 32 26 18 202 NA
Game by game for 2004