UC Irvine junior Matt Summers always wanted to be the center of attention on the baseball field. He just always figured he could do so without operating in the middle of the diamond.
But after reluctantly giving up his center-field dreams this season, he has become the Anteaters' ace starting pitcher, an All-American candidate, and the likely Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander is 9-2 with a 1.90 earned-run average entering his final regular-season start, Friday at 6:30 p.m. against Long Beach State in the first of a three-game series at Anteater Ballpark. Opponents are hitting a paltry .192 against him and he has won seven straight decisions, all against Big West foes. His last loss was March 25 at Gonzaga, when he gave up two earned runs in seven innings and his only no-decision since came after he allowed two runs and three hits in eight innings at Cal State Bakersfield on April 29. He has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his 14 starts and he has allowed two or fewer earned runs 13 times. Only twice has he failed to complete six innings and his two-hit shutout at UC Riverside on Friday was the Anteaters' only complete game of the season. Not bad for someone who had never thrown more than six innings in his life before this season.
"I didn't want to pitch," said Summers, whose ERA is 1.34 in his last 47 innings and whose fastball has registered 94 mph this season. "In high school, we would get questionnaires from [professional] scouts and I would always list my position as outfielder/pitcher. I always made sure outfielder was first."
Summers estimated he pitched between 30 and 35 innings during a high school career that included two schools in Scottsdale, Ariz. But having thrown 94 mph even then, he was drafted out of high school in the 43rd round by the New York Yankees as a pitcher.
"I wanted $500,000 to sign as a pitcher out of high school," Summers said. "But if they took me as an outfielder, I told them I'd go for $100,000. I suggested they let me try outfield for three years, then if that didn't work out, I could still throw 94 mph and I would become a pitcher."
Summers was recruited as a two-way player, originally committing to Arizona State, then changing his mind and landing at UCI, which is 38-14, 15-6 in conference and ranked No. 24 by Baseball America.
Summers said Pat Shine, UCI's associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, told him he'd be starting in the outfield, as well as on the mound, by the end of his collegiate career.
Summers pitched and played outfield his first two seasons, with limited results. Surgery to repair torn meniscus in January before his freshman year largely sabotaged his debut campaign. He hit .343 in 35 at-bats as a sophomore, when just 11 of his 41 appearances were as a starting outfielder. He was 2-2 on the mound, making 21 appearances, including four starts. But his 8.36 ERA ranked last on the staff.
After pitching and hitting well in the Cape Cod League last summer, Summers said UCI coaches convinced him to give up hitting this season to maximize his potential on the bump. But even then, there was confusion over his role.
Coming into the fall (of 2010), I was told they had zero intention of me being a starter," Summers said. "But toward the end of the fall, they started extending me to see if I could be a starter. I struggled starting games as a sophomore, because I didn't understand how to start. It's a completely different mind-set than coming out of the bullpen. I couldn't figure out how to [transfer] the aggressiveness you need as a reliever into being a starter. I had a tendency to relax too much, trying to save myself to go longer. I realized you need to go 100% all the time as a starter, too. I talked to some of our older guys as well as [undergraduate assistant] Brett Smith and [pitching coach] Jason Dietrich about how I need to prepare myself for a start. Preparation has been the biggest thing for me."
The addition of a changeup before his senior season has also been a huge factor in his success," Summers said.
"I learned the grip in the Cape from [East Carolina catcher] Zach Wright," Summers said. "I only threw a handful in games during the Cape league, but I had success with it. It still felt weird to me during the fall, but I just kept tinkering with it. When I started throwing it for strikes, it just made everything much easier."
After a rough outing in the season-opener against Nevada (one run, four walks and three hit batters in 2 1/3 no-hit innings), Summers allowed two hits and struck out nine in an eight-inning win against Southern. He has been virtually unbeatable since (he gave up one run and five hits in six innings of a 1-0 setback at Saint Mary's for his other loss).
His improved command is reflected in the fact that he has walked just four in his last 40 innings, after walking 25 in his first 54 2/3 innings.
"People had been telling me my whole time at UCI that once it clicked [on the mound], I would feel it and it would be so easy," Summers said. "For a while, I was like 'How long is that going to take?' I think the main thing was giving up hitting and fully committing to pitching, because I had been pretty stubborn about that the first couple years here. But I'm a pitcher now. And I'm a pitcher, not just a thrower. [The mound] is where I'm comfortable out there and I'm comfortable that in any situation, I can execute."
Summers said he has embraced the added responsibility pitching entails.
"I loved playing outfield," he said. "My favorite thing in center field was making a diving catch. I wanted the fans to say, 'Did you see that catch?' Now, I can make [the equivalent of a] diving catch every inning. Now, people can say 'Did you see that pitch?'
"I'm having a blast because I feel like I'm making up for the last couple years of not doing too much and kind of being in the dugout. I love that there is a lot of pressure on my shoulders and I know the guys are counting on me to do well. It's cool to kind of lead the way and set the tone and I know there's a lot riding on what I do and it matters. If I do badly, there's a good chance we'll lose. If I do well, we keep winning and go to the playoffs. I feel like I've been a big part of that."
Dietrich said Summers is the clear choice for Big West Pitcher of the Year.
"I think he has earned it," said Dietrich, who lists competitiveness and coachability among Summers' assets. "No one else in the conference is 7-0. The numbers speak for themselves."
Speculation has Summers going as early as the second round in the June draft and UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said Summers has increased his future bank account with every outing.
Regardless of when he is picked, Summers said he will continue to strive to improve.
"Whoever is the first pitcher picked in the draft, I'm going to be coming after him to try and prove I'm better than he is," Summers said.