Sean Isaac continues to shine for Vanguard baseball

Vanguard University pitcher Sean Isaac is 13-1 this season with a 2.15 earned-run average.
(Courtesy of Jeff Melton/Vanguard)

Sean Isaac is the incremental man. Day by day, pitch by pitch, workout by workout since he was a teenager, the Vanguard University senior has approached the stages of his baseball development as if they were innings leading to an ultimate outcome.

Now, after winning his last nine starts, amassing 23 wins in two seasons with the Lions, and becoming one of the best pitchers in the NAIA, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder is preparing for another potential fork in the base paths.

Isaac will graduate Friday and then lead the No. 13-ranked Lions (37-13-1) into the postseason that will include the Golden State Athletic Conference and NAIA tournaments, beginning with the conference tournament Monday through May 12 at Westmont College.

Beyond that, there figures to be an opportunity to compete professionally. Or not.

“If someone wants to give me a chance early in the [Major League Baseball June] draft, that’s awesome,” Isaac said. “If not, I’ll take any opportunity.”

Isaac has made the most of his opportunity at Vanguard, one that almost didn’t happen after electing to shift from position player to pitcher following two seasons at El Camino College.

“For junior college players who want to move on, you either [connect with your four-year school] early or late,” Isaac said. “For me, it was late. Looking back, it was a little bit scary and I’d seen guys who did not find places to play and the end of that summer [preceding their junior year]. I ran into an old [Mira Costa High] teammate, Brett Collins, who played at Vanguard, and I asked him if he thought Vanguard would have any room. I told him I was looking for an opportunity.”

Lions Coach Rob Pegg recalls a phone call from Collins touting Isaac, who, fatefully made his next summer-league appearance on the Vanguard mound.

“I call guys like that a godsend,” Pegg said of Isaac’s favorable first impression. “We’d already recruited some pitching, but we knew we needed more, and our coaching staff all agreed that we liked this guy and we needed this guy.’”

There has been plenty to like, on the field and off, including a 13-1 record this season (23-6 career at Vanguard) and a 2.15 earned-run average in 2016 with 127 strikeouts in 104 2/3 innings. His 13 wins this year (he is 15-1 in his last 16 decisions) are tied for the NAIA lead. He has allowed more than two earned runs in only three starts this spring, never more than four.

“He has just been the anchor of our pitching staff for two years,” Pegg said. “No one in our program works harder and he is a natural leader. He wants to play at the next level, even though he knows that getting there as an NAIA guy means you have to be special. We’re pushing hard for him [to be drafted] and there has been as much interest in him as anyone we have. He still doesn’t show that really-plus velocity as more of a consistent 88-to-91-mph guy. But he has the measurables and the makeup and that stat line behind him. He is one of the top three guys in the country, NAIA-wise. I think you would have to be a fool not to give this guy a shot.”

Isaac said he knew he wanted his shot when he was a junior in high school.

“That’s when I made a decision,” Isaac said. “I told myself [professional baseball] is what I want to do in life. I want to play ball until they tell me I can’t. I committed right then to work as hard as I could and as long as it took to get that opportunity. It’s something I have thought about almost every day since.”

Those thoughts were more specific than pipe dreams, Pegg said.

“He’s very regimented,” Pegg said. “Everything he does in a day is geared toward being the best pitcher he can be. That includes nutrition. He’s very committed, disciplined and passionate about it.”

Passion is apparent whenever Isaac takes the mound. But he has also benefited from adding a new pitch to his repertoire.

“I knew I needed one more pitch [beyond his fastball and slider],” said Isaac, who said his fastball reached 94 mph on the radar gun last year, but has topped out at 92 this season. “About halfway through last season, I started working on a circle change-up, but I never really felt comfortable with it. Then last fall, my pitching coach, Jordan Oseguera, asked me to try the split-finger fastball. The first couple were great pitches and I’ve been throwing it ever since.”

Added Pegg: “The splitter has made a huge difference, especially against left-handed hitters.”

Isaac has also made a big difference for the Lions, who reached the NAIA World Series last year for the first time in 30 years and finished second behind No. 6-ranked Westmont in the GSAC to post its best conference finish since 1993. Vanguard is a virtual lock to receive an at-large berth into this season’s NAIA regionals, regardless of how it fares in the GSAC Tournament.

“It’s really an awesome thing that I can graduate from here [with a communications degree] and leave this program knowing I did well and we did well as a team,” Isaac said. “I leave knowing I’ve given everything I’ve had to the program and to my team and that is very satisfying and very humbling.”