Is Mike King even going to last three innings tonight?
Head coach Mike Gambino remembers pacing in the dugout in the second inning of an April matchup with No. 18 North Carolina, thinking about an early exit for Boston College’s top starter. Mike King, his most reliable arm, led the ACC in walks allowed, only surrendering 12 free passes all season, but he couldn’t seem to find the strike zone that night. And it looked like the Tar Heels were going to make him pay.
With two outs and the bases loaded, the 6-foot-3 right-hander walked another UNC batter—this time, on four straight pitches—to put the Eagles in an early 1-0 hole. By now, Gambino was really sweating: Every run matters, especially when facing the Tar Heels’ ace, Zac Gallen.
Mike King is a Picasso on the rubber, painting the corners with his go-to two-seam fastball that acts as a pseudo-sinker. His location is his best tool, as he brushes the edges of the plate to bait hitters into easy ground ball outs and strikeouts. He doesn’t miss.
Except for that night, when his fastball command was nowhere to be found. So King adapted. Relying more heavily on his off-speed and secondary pitches, he escaped the second-inning jam without any further damage and went on to blank UNC for six more innings. He didn’t yield another walk, and only allowed one runner past first base for the rest of the game. The complete game exhausted King for 102 pitches and every ounce of his strength to keep a lethal Tar Heel offense off the scoreboard on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff. Even though BC lost 1-0—a fitting microcosm for King’s season, during which many solid outings resulted in undeserved L’s due to a lack of run support—the performance was impressive nonetheless.
Although Mike King has the potential for complete games every time he takes the mound, nine innings won’t be the norm for the junior. Often, he will need help closing the door in tight, low-scoring ballgames on Friday nights. He’ll need an exclamation point to cap off his starts, a back-end arm who can erase inherited runners and dodge late-game scoring situations.
He needs Justin Dunn.
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Before each game, Dunn, a Freeport, N.Y., native, listens to Jay-Z as he starts his warm-up routine. The Brooklyn rapper’s iconic voice reminds him of Derek Jeter’s face-carving, diving catch in the stands against the Red Sox. Or Mr. November’s opposite-field shot for the Yankees in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. Or the pinstriped pitching staff of the early 2000s that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Mussina.
So naturally, when the Eagles’ closer takes the mound, he models himself after…
Pedro Martinez? The Boston hero and notorious Yankee killer?
“I get that question a lot, actually,” Dunn said with a chuckle. “I have to give credit to people where credit is due. His stuff is just so electric, and if I can be anything remotely close to what he was, I think I can do pretty well in this conference.”
Mike King thinks “pretty well” is an understatement.
“He’s probably the best [closer] in the ACC,” Mike King said. “I think his off-speed pitches are the best pitches I’ve ever seen. He’s not seen very often, so to throw him out there for one inning, it’s untouchable.”
Dunn’s best pitch may be his slider, which ranges upwards of 85 mph—faster than most Major Leaguers’—and drops off the table faster than you can say “whiff.”
Couple that with an electric fastball that sits at 95 mph (and has been rumored to peak at 97), and the result is a filthy arsenal that rivals some of the best closers in college baseball. Together, Dunn and Mike King—who both frequent 2016 MLB Draft prospect lists across the Internet—are poised to lead a pitching staff that could carry BC to its first winning season since 2010 and a return trip to the postseason in May.
* * *
If 2015 was Mike King’s breakout season, then his Apr. 17 start against Georgia Tech was certainly his standout gem.
Mike King was a first-inning single away from a no-hitter, going the distance against the Yellow Jackets in just one hour and 52 minutes and striking out eight. The Rhode Island native faced the minimum number of batters and retired the last 17 hitters who stepped up to the plate. The complete-game shutout earned him ACC Player of the Week honors.
At his best, Mike King has the two-seam fastball of Doug Fister and the calculated command of a young Cliff Lee.
But the key to Mike King’s success isn’t his body as much as his brain. Associate head coach and pitching specialist Jim Foster has molded the honor roll student into a grade-A baseball mind, anticipating pitch sequences based on the count and the type of hitter at the plate.
“He loves the pitcher that already knows what he’s going to call prior to calling it,” Mike King said of Foster.
For example, if Mike King is facing a power hitter, he pitches him backwards—meaning he’ll spin a couple curveballs across the plate to start an at-bat when the batter is looking for a fastball. If he gets ahead in the count, King likes to keep the hitter off-balance with a two-seamer that runs in on the hands of right-handed hitters and jams them before they can bring the barrel to the ball.
Pitching sequences don’t always follow cookie-cutter guidelines, though. Certain types of swings will dictate which part of the plate King will attack, and the situation can affect pitch selection, as well. But Foster, Mike King, and junior catcher Nick Sciortino all know that.
Last year, BC’s battery and the pitching staff were on the same page so often that Sciortino wouldn’t even have to put down a sign for Mike King. They both knew what was coming.
When Mike King and Sciortino are clicking like that, they know something else, too: the hitter doesn’t stand a chance. And when they aren’t in sync, they have someone waiting in the wings to clean up any mess that falls on his plate.
* * *
“Not everybody can close.”
These are the words of Gambino, but they have been echoed in dugouts across the country for years.
It’s not complicated, really. When one player messes up, the consequences are usually negligible—striking out at the plate with runners in scoring position or allowing an RBI double won’t cost the team a win.
For a closer, though, one small mistake is the difference between life and death. It’s a job with enough pressure to ruin MLB careers, and college students aren’t immune to it.
Last year, Dunn assumed the closer role less than a month into the season and pieced together a nine-inning scoreless streak over a two-week period in April. During the stretch, the righty flame-thrower picked up a save in the Eagles’ Beanpot win over UMass, threw three scoreless innings with three strikeouts at No. 18 North Carolina, and struck out the side against Rhode Island to earn his fourth save of the season.
Two weeks later, BC found itself clinging to a 1-0 lead in the final game of a series with ACC foe Virginia Tech, who had silenced the maroon and gold lineup in the first two games of the weekend bout. Naturally, Gambino called on Dunn in the ninth inning to seal the shutout and send the Eagles home with something to show for their trip to Blacksburg, Va.
The Hokies’ first batter walked on five pitches, placing the tying runner on first base with Virginia Tech’s cleanup hitter, Brendon Hayden, set to step into the box. After Dunn missed with a first-pitch ball, he had to return to the zone and challenge the Hokie slugger. Hayden made him pay.
The payoff pitch was hammered over the right field fence and off the scoreboard, sending Hayden into a trot around the diamond as BC realized the implications of the two-run walk-off homer. Three consecutive losses at the hands of Virginia Tech dropped the Eagles’ winning percentage down to .500 for the season, and each loss seemed so easily avoidable. All they needed were three outs.
Of course, Dunn can’t be blamed. His command briefly escaped him, and the count forced him to sling a strike over the plate to a great hitter. Hayden took advantage of it. Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap to the other team.
But Dunn couldn’t shake it off. After Gambino gave him nearly two weeks to clear his head, Dunn surrendered three runs in four innings of relief against No. 24 Notre Dame, allowing the Irish to break open a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning and run away with the victory.
Previously thought to be a Sunday starter, Dunn was thrust into the closer’s role without some of the mental toughness the job requires. Now, after an offseason of growth under Foster, Gambino believes he is more than ready to embrace the hardest gig in baseball.
“If you’re going to close, at some point you might give it up. Then how are you going to react after that?” Gambino said. “And Justin has showed he can handle that, too. Justin’s matured a lot since he’s been here in all facets: academically, emotionally, athletically.”
Gambino isn’t the only one who believes in Dunn. In fact, Dunn’s biggest supporter might be the same one handing him the ball late in the game.
“You’re sitting in the dugout like, ‘Those are my two runners. I don’t want him to lose this game for the team,’” Mike King said. “And you hand it off to [Dunn] and you’re just like, ‘Whatever. He’s got it.’ There’s so much trust with him. He’s had a lot more composure under pressure, I know he’s gained that from freshman year until now.”
Perhaps it’s his teammates’ confidence in his abilities that has translated into Dunn’s own self-assurance on the field.
As Dunn gets loose before an inning, he struts around the rubber like his neighborhood corner, chain dangling, while opposing hitters try to read his pitches. On the mound, he carelessly sags off to one side before starting his violent leg kick.
“Basically, it’s too easy for him,” Mike King said with a smile. “It comes across as swagger, or even cockiness, but it’s just that confidence that he has that he knows his stuff is better than whoever’s hitting.”
* * *
So far in 2016, King and Dunn have already showed—albeit briefly—flashes of the brilliance that’s expected out of the junior pitching tandem this year.
As the Opening Day starter in Glendale, Ariz., for BC’s series with Northern Illinois, Mike King delivered seven innings of shutout ball, giving up only one hit en route to a 5-1 win. The next day, Dunn closed out the second game of the series with a strikeout. In the team’s first weekend of action, Mike King earned a win, Dunn notched a save, and the Eagles left the desert with a 4-0 record under their belts.
Gambino and his staff know that the success of Mike King and Dunn is absolutely vital if the group wants to accomplish its goal of reaching Omaha at season’s end for the NCAA Tournament. And both Gambino and MLB scouts recognize that the tools are there for BC’s bookends.
But what about Dunn’s Pedro Martinez comparisons?
Mike King, for one, sees the similarities clear as day: “Oh, big time.”
“When Pedro was Pedro, all three of his pitches were arguably the best—he had the best fastball, the best curveball, and the best changeup in the big leagues,” he said. “I love Justin, but he’s not there yet.”