The often-frigid air that swirls around Benedetti Diamond at USF isn’t much of a recruiting tool for elite pitchers. It’s a detriment.
Why would someone who fancies himself a shot at throwing a baseball for a living someday decide to spend key developmental years having to spend 20 to 30 percent more time playing catch merely to get loose than would a pitcher at, say, Pepperdine or Stanford?
In other words, how the heck did Kyle Zimmer, a right-hander whose heater approaches 100 mph and whose draft stock is approaching No. 1 overall status, end up with the Dons?
Simple. He didn’t go to USF as a pitcher. He was recruited out of La Jolla as a corner infielder and says he expected to head for the Hilltop, play third base and swing the stick for four years.
Yet in part because the Dons had a stud third baseman in current Giants minor-leaguer Stephen Yarrow at the hot corner when Zimmer arrived on campus, the plan changed. Zimmer, who didn’t pitch in high school until he was a senior, was moved to the mound and, after a rocky first season, quickly started a climb up the collegiate ranks that could peak with his name being called first this June.
“He’s the real deal,” says a National League scout whose team has a top-six pick. “You look at him, that body [6-foot-4, 220 pounds], that fluid motion that generates high-90s fastballs, that athleticism that’s going to serve him well in terms of repeating his motion and refining his secondary pitches, and you think, ‘Good lord, I’ve got to get this kid.’
“If he’s on the board, we’re taking him. I guarantee that.”
It’s been an improbable rise for Zimmer, no doubt, and in a way it’s mirrored that of the USF program under coach Nino Giarratano, who last season guided the Dons to the West Coast Conference championship.
There was a time when such attention was unthinkable. A potential No. 1 overall pick? A shot at going to the College World Series? At USF? Twenty years ago, such thoughts would land you in the looney bin.
I know. I pitched at USF myself for three years, the last being 1991, and avoiding 40 losses was one of our goals. Giarratano, who took over in 1998, led USF to a school-record 38 wins in 2005 and 2006; the Dons were WCC champs in ’06 as well.
When I played at USF, it was a baseball team. Now it’s a baseball program. Big difference.
And the program, which hosts rival Santa Clara this weekend, figures only to continue to improve. It is on the national map now, and stars such as Zimmer, who will face the Broncos today or Saturday, will keep it there.
And as crazy as it seems now, Zimmer, the pitcher who almost wasn’t, might represent the opening of a spigot that pours more pitching into the program.
After all, nobody needs to know he didn’t go there to pitch, per se. He’s there now, and all it takes is a blazing fastball to warm up the cool Hilltop air.