May 2, 2014
By Sean Brennan
Special to BIGEAST.com
OMAHA, Neb. - Nobody saw this coming.
Not Ed Servais, Creighton's long-time head baseball coach. Not even Matt Warren, the Bluejays' sophomore righthander, who is the main character in one of the best baseball stories playing out this season in the BIG EAST.
"Yeah, there's no doubt about it, Matt's been a big surprise," said Servais, how in his 11th season as the Bluejays head coach. "None of us could have predicted this."
"I was expecting a much better season than last year but I didn't exactly see this coming," Warren said. "It's been one hell of a start."
That's one way of putting Warren's stellar season so far. But it's not just the superior numbers he has posted thus far for Creighton, but the fact that he seemingly came out of nowhere to take the BIG EAST by storm.
In the world of college baseball, any pitcher worth his salt craves the role of Friday starter. It's the Holy Grail for college pitchers. Yet coming into the season Warren never expected to even sniff the coveted position. Servais never thought so, either.
"Originally starting off the season I was in line to be a Sunday starter and if that didn't work out then I'd be a mid-week starter or work out of the bullpen on weekends," Warren said. "That's what I was expecting coming into the first week of the year. If that was my role and it was the best way to help the team then I was totally fine with that. But in time I did want to become a set weekend rotation guy so it kind of lit a fire inside me to keep working for it."
As expected, Warren did start the season out of the pitching limelight but a couple of weeks into the season a spot opened in the rotation and Warren seized his opportunity.
"To be honest he didn't even start the first two weekends in the rotation," Servais said. "He was coming off an injury last summer and he was just OK in the fall and he was just OK in some of his early workouts in January and early February. He was not in the rotation in our first two weekends but he went into the rotation in Week 3 against Charlotte on a Saturday and he pitched pretty well and obviously he hasn't been out of the rotation since."
Why, you ask? Because all Warren has done since moving into the Bluejays rotation is compile a perfect 9-0 record with a 1.67 ERA. The nine wins ties him with Seton Hall's Josh Prevost for the most victories in the BIG EAST while his ERA places second to Prevost's 1.48. He is also limiting opposing batters to just a .206 batting average and has allowed a meager three earned runs over his last six starts. He's one of the main reasons why Creighton, in its first season in the BIG EAST, is sitting alone atop of the conference with an 8-1 mark as the calendar clips to May.
"I don't think anyone envisioned he'd be 9-0 right now," Servais said. "That's pretty hard to do in the college game. But he pitched well against Kansas State and Fresno State and you could start to see that maybe he had the makings of a Friday night guy for us."
So what's been the key to Warren's turnaround from a freshman season in which he went 3-3 in six starts?
"The biggest thing for me was I needed to get down to throwing three pitches for strikes consistently," Warren said. "Last year in my good outings I'd have fastball, curveball and changeup all working and then in the (bad) outings I'd basically be a one-pitch guy. So that was the biggest difference this year, working on pitch-ability."
With the numbers Warren has put up this season - they also include one complete-game shutout and just 51 hits allowed in 70 innings - you might be expecting a hard-throwing dominant type of ace. Something in the line of a Justin Verlander.
Warren, in fact, couldn't be any different from the Tigers' ace and that's more than OK with both Warren and Servais.
"I've never been an overpowering guy in college," Warren said. "Sure, back in high school you could have a mid-80s fastball and be considered a power guy. Nowadays, it's a lot more taking pride in being able to throw strikes. I just try to move the ball as much as I can, get movement on my fastball, movement on my changeup and try to add more depth of my curveball. It's a lot more worrying about location than velocity. I'm just trying to throw strikes, make good pitches and get outs whatever way I can out there."
"He's not throwing 90-plus with his fastball and his stuff is not electric but he understands how to pitch and he uses his defense," Servais said. "He doesn't strike out a lot of hitters. While most Friday night guys are striking out eight, nine, 10 hitters, he's striking out three or four. But he understands how the whole system here at Creighton works, he uses his defense and he pitches to that and that's one of the reasons why he's been so successful."
Warren has a chance to add to his already spectacular season when first-place Creighton hosts Seton Hall in a huge BIG EAST series this weekend. The Pirates come in just two games behind the Bluejays and it all begins with Warren vs. Prevost Friday night in what is expected to be a rocking TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. It pits the Preseason No. 1 Bluejays vs. the No. 2 Pirates with the top two pitchers in the conference going head-to-head. It's the definition of must-see baseball.
"I'll definitely use it as motivation, going against (Prevost)," Warren said. "I'm excited to see how this game plays out. I keep tabs on the stats in the conference and how the teams are doing and how the individual players are performing, it kind of helps with my preparation. So I know obviously he's more of a strikeout pitcher averaging more than one strikeout per inning. So I think it will be an interesting matchup with our different styles. I'm just excited for the opportunity to go out there and give it my all and we'll see how it all turns out. With our start in the conference (the Jays 8-1) there is a little bit of buzz going on out here and it's an exciting time when you got a team like Seton Hall coming out here. So I'm expecting a big crowd out here Friday at the TD."
A hometown crowd that will be looking for Warren to log another victory and add to his perfect season. This time against the top-hitting team in the BIG EAST in Seton Hall.
"In all the years I've been here we've had a couple of pitchers win 12 games for us but Matt's on pace to possibly do better than that," Servais said. "And Friday, that's what every league kind of hangs its hat on, Friday night games. It's expected to be a low-scoring, hard-fought game where one pitch or one mistake could be the difference. Hopefully Matt is up for the challenge."