The Sky Is The Limit For Freshman Jeff Hoffman At East Carolina

UABSPORTS.COM Jeff Hoffman has solidified the midweek starters role as a true freshman
Jeff Hoffman has solidified the midweek starters role as a true freshman

April 25, 2012

By Sam Hickman

On February 18, freshman right-hander Jeff Hoffman relieved Jharel Cotton after the latter tossed six solid innings in his first career start in a Pirate uniform.

Hoffman, who also made his collegiate debut that particular day, hurled a perfect frame and recorded his first strikeout as East Carolina cruised to a convincing 16-1 victory over Milwaukee.

The Pirates entered the 2012 campaign tasked with replacing one of the nation's best pitching staffs, which included five hurlers that were selected in the MLB Draft last June and finished 2011 with the country's seventh-best team earned run average.

The club needed several talented but unproven players to provide stability on the mound and complement senior lefty, staff ace Kevin Brandt - the only returning pitcher who logged more than 22 innings on the hill a year ago.

Fast forward to the present and you'll find a host of squad members that have made such a breakthrough.

There's weekend starter Tyler Joyner, who sports a 5-1 record and 2.77 ERA.

Then, there's Cotton. The Virgin Islands product and Miami Dade transfer stands in a tie atop the league charts with seven wins and boasts a 3.29 ERA.

After experiencing limited time on the hill last season, Drew Reynolds (8) and Tanner Merritt (7) have provided seventh-year head coach Billy Godwin reliable options at the back end of the bullpen as the pair have combined for 15 saves- arguably the best one-two closing tandem in Conference USA.

Junior college transfer Andy Smithmyer has also been rock-solid as the diminutive right-hander has pitched in a role eerily similar to that of Brad Mincey's in 2011. Smithmyer - who has mostly appeared in extended relief situations - ranks first on the club with a 1.49 ERA.



But, perhaps no member of the unit has made a greater - and more surprising - impact than Hoffman.

During a March 11 tilt against nationally-ranked Louisville, the Latham, N.Y., native came out of `pen in the sixth with the Pirates clinging to a 6-4 lead. Hoffman needed just 38 pitches in four perfect innings to preserve the win, earning his first career save in a 9-4 triumph.

Nine days later, ECU entered a home contest against rival then No. 11 N.C. State with a certain uneasiness having lost back-to-back midweek games - setbacks marked by lackluster pitching performances, including an 18-11 defeat at the hands of VCU.

Thus, Godwin turned to Hoffman in an attempt to cure the midweek ills.

However, the 6-foot-4, 180-pound flamethrower was roughed up early in his first collegiate start. The Wolfpack recorded four consecutive hits - including two doubles and a home run - to lead off the second frame and race out to a 3-0 lead. The Pack was on the verge of busting the game wide open later in the inning as it had runners on first and second with just one out.

Second-year pitching coach Dan Roszel admitted it's difficult to gauge what type of resolve a freshman might have in such a predicament.

"You don't know a lot of times how (freshmen) will respond in certain situations and what might get to them," Roszel said. "We just wanted to see if he could grind through it and make a pitch when he needed to. Honestly, we didn't know what we were going to get. He had started to look more confident and looked great coming out of the bullpen, but how would he respond when adversity hit?"

An unflappable Hoffman prevented further damage and subsequently retired seven of the next eight batters before surrendering an unearned run in the fifth. The Shaker High School graduate lasted five stanzas, allowing four runs (three earned) on five hits while walking one and striking out a pair. He kept the Pirates in the game long enough to mount a rally and eventually claim a come-from-behind 6-5 victory in front of a season-high 4,714 faithful at Lewis Field inside Clark-LeClair Stadium.

Hoffman - whose composure, poise and demeanor on the mound are seldom seen in freshman - said the team's belief in him fueled a rise in his own confidence.

"Just throwing me out there in that situation told me the coaches thought I could do it," he said. "My teammates told me I was ready and all of that just motivated me to try to perform above and beyond my capabilities."

Maybe, just maybe, Godwin and Roszel had found the guy they were looking for to solidify a much-needed midweek starting designation.

Hoffman and ECU again faced N.C. State eight days later on March 28, this time on the road. The Wolfpack had climbed to No. 9 in the national rankings and were undoubtedly eager to avenge the earlier setback in Greenville.

In round two of the heated rivalry, Hoffman yielded three runs (all earned) on six hits and struck out a pair in a career-high 6 2/3 frames to notch his first quality start of 2012. Despite suffering a 4-3 setback in 11 innings, the Pirates left Doak Field in Raleigh that Wednesday with the utmost confidence in their rookie hurler.

Although Roszel acknowledges Hoffman's remarkable success on the bump as a freshman, he said he demands that all of his pitchers compete regardless of class or game experience.

"Jeff is a competitor. He's got great stuff. He's got top-of-the-rotation stuff," he explained. "But most of all he loves to compete. That's one thing we require of our pitchers - doesn't matter if they're a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. That's exactly what Jeff has done."

Hoffman again validated the coaching staff's decision to infuse him into the rotation. In a road contest against UNC Wilmington on April 3, he earned his first win as a member of the Purple and Gold, scattering five hits and striking out seven batters over 6 1/3 scoreless frames in a 5-0 final.

Of course, an electric fastball, hard-biting curve and diving changeup have contributed to his success, but his ability to perform in pressure situations have been equally as critical in his rise from preseason unknown to hopeful honors candidacy following his initial campaign.

Complementing a pair of solid outings against N.C. State in which he recorded key outs when he needed them most, Hoffman again showed his mettle in the Port City. With ECU leading 3-0 in the fifth, UNCW put runners at second and third with two outs. Hoffman escaped by recording a strikeout. The Seahawks also placed a pair of runners in scoring position in the sixth, but the righty induced a harmless fly ball to center field to escape the jam.

Hoffman says instead of trying to overpower hitters when runners are on base, he simplifies things and lets his defense do the work.

"It gives me a great deal of confidence when the coaches leave me out there when I get in tough spots," he said. "It makes me want to compete even harder. When I get in those spots, I don't try to strike out every batter. I want to keep the ball down in the zone and let the guys behind me make plays because they will."

The performance that has made him stand out more than his tall frame and thick New York accent was a brilliant effort at Elon on April 10. Hoffman twirled a gem, fanning a career-high 10 batters while walking just one in eight scoreless innings against the Phoenix.

Elon threatened to spoil an otherwise dominant outing by the rookie when it loaded the bases in the eighth with one out. Instead of pulling his starter, who had already thrown over 100 pitches, Roszel said Hoffman's response in similar situations earlier in the year left the coaching staff with little reason to believe No. 30 couldn't do it again. Roszel's confidence was rewarded as Hoffman retired the next two batters, leaving three runners stranded.

"When you have a guy that's as competitive as Jeff, you give him that chance," he said. "He's not scared to pitch in those situations. Some guys let the moment take control of them. Jeff seizes those moments, so we're going to let him fight through those situations."

While Hoffman did not record the win - ECU failed to secure a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth and eventually won 3-2 in ten frames - he demonstrated why he is now a fixture in the rotation rather than simply an option.

Following his standout showing at Elon, Hoffman was awarded the Conference USA Pitcher-of-the-Week award by league officials April 16.

In his next outing, facing UNCW for the second time of the season in an April 18 contest in Greenville, Hoffman experienced the worst outing of his young career. The Seahawks became the first opponent on East Carolina's docket to solve the newest addition to the starting rotation. The Colonial Athletic Association's first-place team pounded Hoffman, amassing eight hits and six runs, prompting Godwin to lift his young starter with two outs in the fifth as UNCW held a 6-0 advantage.

Quite simply, Hoffman - whose eight hits allowed marked a dubious career-high in five midweek starts - wasn't at his best and a red-hot UNCW squad cashed in on the opportunity on its way to a 10-1 victory over ECU.

"I know I made some pitches that I left up in the zone, but don't take anything away from them because they capitalized and hit the ball hard," he said to reporters after dropping his first career decision as a collegiate. "That just can't happen. I've got to do a better job than that."

Considering Hoffman's ability to pitch effectively against every lineup he faced during the first two months of his young career, the April 18 result is more likely an aberration than cause for concern.

Thus far in 2012, Hoffman has made 12 appearances (five starts) and carries a 1-1 record with a 2.79 ERA into the season's stretch run. He has tossed 42.0 innings, allowing 13 earned runs on 31 hits while walking only 10 and striking out 33.

While Pirate Nation has certainly enjoyed the emergence of Hoffman, opponents for the most part have not. Foes are batting a paltry .203 against him.

When asked how he's been able to pitch so effectively during his initial year in the program, Hoffman deflected the praise.

"I credit the coaching staff and my teammates for giving me confidence that I didn't have before," he said. "Really, I just trust the pitch that Coach Roszel calls and try my best to put it in a spot where the guy can't hit it hard."

He's done just that. He also has plenty of time to learn and develop during his stint in Greenville. After the 2012 campaign, Hoffman has three years of eligibility remaining - much to the pleasure of his mentor.

"Having a guy like Jeff around for awhile is exciting because it gives us an opportunity to work on the little things and see improvement in different areas," Roszel said, noting that the time-demanding process of making slight alterations to various moving parts of a pitcher's wind-up and follow-through can spur a dramatic improvement in results.

"He will learn through failure, and experience will help him grow stronger mentally," the 2011 College Baseball Daily C-USA Assistant Coach-of-the-Year honoree added. "If Jeff continues to believe in himself and continues to believe in his delivery, he'll be special to watch over the next few years."