Feb. 3, 2012

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Armed for success

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


Texas A&M knew what it was getting when it hired Rob Childress six seasons ago – a proven pitching pedagogue.


What the Aggies have gotten in return is five straight trips to the NCAA tourney, capped by last year’s 47-win season that ended in Omaha, A&M’s first trip to the College World Series since 1999.


Pitching played a huge role in the Aggies’ run to Omaha, and pitching will play a huge role if the Aggies are to return in 2012.


“We all understand how hard it is to get to that situation,” junior right-hander Michael Wacha said. “Now we have to get to that situation again, and push a little harder.”


The Aggies’ arms start with Wacha (right) and senior Ross Stripling, as good as a 1-2 combination as there is in the country. Each ace had a 2.29 ERA with Stripling going 14-2 and Wacha finishing 9-4. Stripling struck out 113 and walked 18 in 125.2 innings, with opponents hitting only .202; Wacha fanned 123 and walked 30 in 129.2 innings, and opponents hit .243.


“Obviously it’s a good feeling going into any season to have two guys with the talent and experience and leadership back that those two have,” Childress said. “I think both of them are mature enough, and, myself, to know that we’re only going to be as good as the rest of the staff as far as the mound goes.


“Those guys are going to go out and give us a chance every time, but we’ve got to be able to find some guys that not only can finish games, but also a quality starter on Sunday and Tuesday as well.”


After a stellar freshman campaign (9-2, 2.90), Wacha (left) took the summer off and stayed in College Station to work out with the Aggies’ weight trainer.


“Coach Childress got me standing up taller and my arm slot a little bit higher to get a little more downward tilt on my pitches,” he said.


After a second-straight nine-win season and a summer with Team USA, Wacha, complete with a 6-6, 200-pound frame, has emerged as one of the top pitching prospects in the country.


Stripling (right) started last year as the Aggies’ closer after a 6-5 sophomore season when he was the Saturday starter. Childress moved him back in the rotation, and his 14 wins led the nation.


“He’s an extremely big competitor,” Wacha said of Stripling. “He pounds the strike zone. I don’t remember him walking a batter. Off the field, he’s definitely the smartest guy on the team. He’s a top notch student and all around good guy.”


Childress sees similarities in his pair of aces.


“Both those guys have incredible aptitude,” he said. “They make changes easily and are able to make them, cement them and move on. They’re just incredibly motivated. I would say both those guys share those exact characteristics, incredible aptitude and the great work ethic.”


As good as the Aggies expect to be on the mound, the bats may be a perfect complement.


All-American outfielder Tyler Naquin is the ringleader and is coming off a year in which he hit .381 with 23 doubles, two homers, 68 runs and 44 RBI and was named the Big 12 Player of the Year. The Aggies also return their next three leading hitters in Krey Bratsen, Matt Juengel and Jacob House, as well as Brandon Wood.


“Those guys all got quite a few at-bats under their belt and continue to progress and improve,” Childress said. “Those guys were a big part of our success last year and will be again this year.”


But if the Aggies are to repeat last year’s success, they know it will start on the mound.


Texas A&M ranked 14th in the nation last year with a 2.90 ERA, a year after ranking No. 13. The Omaha recipe contained many of the same ingredients Childress mixed in as pitching coach at Nebraska. Mentoring the likes of Shane Komine, Joba Chamberlain and Johnny Dorn, Childress enjoyed three trips to the College World Series in his eight seasons with the Cornhuskers.


His message clearly is being heard at A&M.


“Coach Childress preaches for us to come out and work every day like it’s our last day of playing ball,” Wacha said. “We definitely don’t take anything for granted.”


(Phil Stanton contributed to this story) 

(photos courtesy of TAMU Media Relations Office)