Feb. 12, 2014

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Foley Fuels Chippewas

By Chris Webb

Special to CollegeBaseballInsider.com


It seems every three years a pitcher emerges at Central Michigan, an ace who guides the Chippewas through the Mid-American Conference. It’s actually more than a notion.


In 2007, current Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Josh Collmenter was named the MAC Pitcher of the Year, helping the Mt. Pleasant, Mich., program to a 35-21 regular season.


In 2010, right-hander Jesse Hernandez went 8-3 on his way to receiving the conference’s top pitching honor, guiding Central Michigan to the program’s 12th MAC championship.


There wasn’t a Chippewa who took home the MAC’s Pitcher of the Year honor last season, but there was one who stepped into his own and enters this season eyed as the conference’s top pitcher: junior right-hander Jordan Foley.


Behind a fastball that can be dialed up to 97 mph, the 6-3, 223-pound Foley was a buzz saw as a sophomore. In 90.2 innings, Foley struck out 90, held opposing hitters to a .209 average and carried a 3.08 ERA in his first season as a full-time starter, stepping into the role of staff ace. If one looked at Foley’s production as a freshman, they would have been hard-pressed to believe such a role would be placed upon the native of The Colony, Texas. But Foley’s performance – an 8.20 ERA over 37.1 innings and a .311 batting average against – was secondary to the process behind Central Michigan’s development of pitchers.


“You look back two years ago, and Jordan Foley didn’t have very good numbers,” Central Michigan pitching coach Jeff Opalewski said. “He was basically a one-pitch [fastball] guy. We could have thrown him 12 innings, or a different situation that wasn’t completely dedicated to developing the player.  


“I can go back to a game against Michigan State, it was the sixth inning, we were protecting a one-run lead. He was completely unprepared to do that, but he needed to get out there and do it. He walked the bases loaded, we end up losing the game but it is what it is, we got a No. 1 pitcher out of it last year.”


Opalewski knows a thing or two of developing pitchers.


A pitcher at Central Michigan from 2001-04, Opalewski enters his sixth season leading CMU’s pitchers, providing the tutelage that led to the MAC Freshman of the Year in pitcher Dietrich Enns, the same year Hernandez was the selected conference’s pitcher. Nine pitchers have been selected in the MLB Draft club under Opalewski’s watch, with Foley, Baseball America’s No. 37 prospect in college baseball’s junior class, on the cusp of being the highest drafted of the bunch.


“We kind of have a specific mold,” Opalewski said. “We look for projectable guys with athleticism and or length. Then you just have to try to create a culture where they’re going to put the work in to make that projection happen. It’s not magic or anything, the kids are working really hard.”


What has allowed Foley to meet the projection, to make the jump between years one and two and enter year three as one of the nation’s top pitchers, is what Opalewski stated, getting out there and doing it.


“I had a lot of opportunities my freshman year, then I went out in the summer, I started every five or six days,” Foley said. “The biggest thing is just the mental side. I gained so much experience my first year of college baseball, I gained a lot of confidence and belief in myself that I belong here, after a pretty rough spring. Coming back my sophomore year, just having that confidence.”


Though from Texas, Foley’s family was in the process of moving to Michigan.  Knowing the Great Lakes State would be the family’s permanent home going forward, Foley looked at schools in the region in an attempt to stay closer to home. Central Michigan’s facilities, the relationship established with the staff and the ability of the program to develop pitchers, were the reasons CMU would be home for Foley, a 26th round pick of the New York Yankees in the 2011 draft.


“I came on a visit, really liked the overall atmosphere of the campus,” Foley said. “It’s small, but still a lot of people which is nice. The facilities are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Being a smaller school, I didn’t expect it to be as nice as it actually is, that was attractive, too. The relationship I was able to build with Coach Ope, Coach Jaksa, they made me feel comfortable.”


What also made Foley comfortable was how pitching fueled Central Michigan’s success, from seeing former Chippewas in the minors to being at ease with whom he was trusting with his development.


“Cold weather, it doesn’t really matter,” Foley said. “They’re still sending guys out, two or three every year on average. The overall confidence he made me have in him, the evidence that speaks for itself they’re going to develop guys, if you buy in and do your work, you’re going to have a good chance get to the next level.”


Opalewski feels Foley has bought in and done the work to put him in the position he is.


“It’s been a process like it always is, and he’s worked really hard to do it,” Opalewski said. “It’s been a very, very steady process, and if he takes another step forward like I think he’s going to, he’s going to be really good.”


The next step in Opalewski’s mind is for Foley to have the ability to throw all three pitchers, fastball, slider and change up, for strikes – three pitches Opalewski feels have the potential to be plus-pitches. If he does so, with the ability to carry fastball velocity of 89-94 over 100 pitches and reach back for a little more when needed, Foley can find himself climbing up draft boards.


That’s of no concern to Foley. As Central Michigan seeks its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1994, Foley is focused on the task at hand.


“These days, it’s impossible to not see those things because of social media,” Foley said. “It’s just knowing how to limit your exposure and remove yourself from certain situations that can get in your head a little bit. I’ve just been focused on keeping the outside out, just doing my business and whatever happens, happens.”


Staying within himself is an area he feels he can improve upon.

“I think I let it get a little too big,” Foley said on being the ace. “Just being put in that situation, I didn’t really know what to expect. Learning from that, this year it’s going to be a lot more laid back and relaxed approach. Going out there and competing as long as I can knowing I have eight guys behind me, and a dugout full of guys that have my back. I’m going to focus on doing my job, and my job is going out there every Friday and winning a ballgame for us.”


Foley’s mentality is music to the ears of his head coach.


“He said it right, in doing his job, not put too much on himself,” CMU coach Steve Jaksa said.  “He probably said it best that he started putting too much on himself that he had to do this.”


Just as he has developed physically under Opalewski’s eye, the head coach, too, sees a change.


“He’s put himself in a great position, he’s worked hard to improve his game,” Jaksa said. “He’s also worked hard to improve that mental aspect that, you know what, I’m going to sustain this every game out, I’m not going to let the outside get in, get in the way of what I want to accomplish and that’s being the best I can be every time out there.”


Being the best he can be each and every time out will send another MAC honor to Mt. Pleasant.


(photos courtesy of CMU Media Relations Office)