SPORTS

Wildcats’ Sutherland Embracing Role of Starting Pitcher

by | May 18, 2019 | Sports

Casey Sutherland starting in the Saturday game against the University of North Alabama

 

Two years ago, amid the chaotic celebration of Davidson’s Atlantic 10 championship, Rucker Taylor pulled aside pitcher Casey Sutherland.

The Wildcats had just embarked on a run that would soon reach the NCAA Super Regionals, and the heroics of seniors such as outfielder Will Robertson (with his bat) and pitcher Durin O’Linger (with his right arm) provided the easy headlines.

But Taylor, then the Wildcats’ associate head coach, had a message to deliver to Sutherland, then a sophomore reliever. It was in reference to his outing in the Wildcats’ tournament game against Saint Louis, when he pitched four innings and kept Davidson within reach in an elimination game it rallied to win 8-7 — on an Eric Jones RBI-double — in the 10th inning. Two victories over top-seeded VCU in the A-10 final quickly followed, as did the program’s first NCAA berth, but Taylor didn’t want Sutherland’s quiet contribution to go unrecognized, especially to the pitcher himself.

“If you don’t do that, we don’t win. It’s that simple,” Taylor told Sutherland. “Be ready for more moments like that.”

Sutherland is now a senior, and he has, in fact, been in — and delivered in — pivotal moments on a more regular basis the last two seasons. A year ago, he served as the Wildcats’ closer, and this season, he’s answered the call as Davidson’s Friday starter. He enters this week’s series at St. Bonaventure — he’ll start the first game of Thursday’s doubleheader — 6-1 with a 3.06 ERA in 64.2 innings.

“We recruited him to be what he is now,” says Taylor. “We thought he’d be a frontline guy, thought he had the want-to, the desire to do it and, obviously, the ability.”

Sutherland has been efficient on the mound and has found himself among the nation’s best at throwing strikes, evidenced by his ranking in walks-per-nine-innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s currently third nationally in both categories, with marks of 0.70 and 10.40, respectively. He’s struck out 52 and walked five.

“He’s got great command,” says Jones, who has not only caught Sutherland in games but also in bullpen sessions dating to their freshmen season. “And his confidence from freshman year to senior year is just a night and day difference.”

‘Not terrible’
Like many athletes, Casey Sutherland tried multiple sports while growing up.  

“I’m awful at basketball,” he says. “The guys like to joke about it.”

In the eighth grade, he joined the football team and learned to play the tight end and defensive end positions. The team lost every game it played.

“I think we scored twice and one was called back,” says Sutherland.

Baseball was just the best fit, though Sutherland says he’s also skilled at racquetball. How did he end up on the mound for good at age 13? In his self-deprecating way, Sutherland says it’s because the coaches noticed he was “really bad at hitting, but not terrible at pitching.”

He played on talented teams at Florida’s Lake Brantley High, where the lineup consisted entirely of soon-to-be college players and produced a state title his sophomore year.

He started 10 games as a Davidson freshman and finished 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 40 innings. Though there were some rough outings and some growing pains, he came out of it with the underlying, confidence-boosting thoughts that, “You can do this. You can get guys out.”

As a sophomore, there were more ups and downs, but he threw three scoreless innings of one-hit ball — with no walks — at George Washington in late April. Less than a month later, Sutherland got the call in the A-10 consolation final, when the season was on the line and the game was trending in the wrong direction. If he gave up much at all, the season was probably going to end that night.

Saint Louis held a 6-3 lead with two outs in the bottom of the third, and Sutherland struck out the first batter he faced to get out of the inning. He surrendered an RBI-double in the fourth, but pitched a 1-2-3 fifth and had essentially the same kind of sixth inning, after the leadoff hitter was thrown out at second trying to stretch a single. He recorded the first two outs in the seventh, with Davidson trailing 7-4, before handing the ball to Austin Leonard. He had kept it close and done his job.

“In my mind, that was big for him,” says Taylor.

The Wildcats scored three runs in the eighth inning, including two on a game-tying RBI-single by Brian Fortier. Jones’ 10th-inning double pushed the Wildcats ahead for good, and O’Linger struck out the final six batters he faced to seal it.  

“It really was a low morale to a high one after that,” says Jones. “That started a win streak.”

The Wildcats won their next five games as well and made program history. Though he wouldn’t pitch again in 2017, Sutherland had the springboard he needed for future success.

Closing to starting
At first last season, it didn’t dawn on Sutherland how he was being utilized. But he embraced the closer role once he realized it was his, and recorded six saves while going 2-1 with a 2.47 ERA in 43.2 innings. He did it while relying mostly on his fastball.

As 2019 dawned, he moved into the starting rotation and was the opening day starter on Feb. 15 against Towson. He has welcomed the responsibility of being the first Wildcat to toe the rubber in a weekend series.

“As a closer, the tone is going to be set by the time you come in the game,” he says. “You have a lead, go keep it. This year, you’re not only starting a game, you’re starting a weekend. It’s just knowing that your role is going to be important in how it affects the weekend. You set the tone. You set the pace.”

Sutherland is now throwing his three pitches — fastball, change-up, slider — interchangeably, and he’s not afraid to work both sides of the plate or backwards in counts. He gets ahead of most batters. Prior to walking two at UMass May 4, he had the nation’s best walks-per-nine-innings mark — 0.48 — and a 16.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio (second).

“There’s a quiet confidence now,” says Taylor. “The command has gotten better. His secondary stuff is better. He’s gotten stronger.”

On days he’s scheduled to start, Sutherland rises early and cooks bacon and eggs for breakfast. He’ll spend time reading the Bible and playing the latest $2 used video game he bought (often from the Halo franchise). He’ll drink a smoothie and get dialed in upon arrival at the field.

“I like a routine,” he says.

The in-game routine now has been to throw strikes and lead the Wildcats in a way Sutherland himself didn’t really imagine three years ago. Over time, he’s put in the required physical work, increased his velocity and command and made the necessary adjustments to his delivery and arm slot.

But perhaps more than anything, Sutherland has changed his mindset. Taylor sees a mental toughness and steadiness that wasn’t there early in his college days, and Sutherland believes more than ever that he can and will get the job done. He’s done it all before.

“I know where the pitches are going and have the confidence to do it,” he says.

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