June 13, 2018 10:14:29 PM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- There is no reason to sugarcoat things now, so Zach Neff won't: his numbers at Austin Peay were not good.
He appeared 48 times over his final two seasons as a Governor, starting 10 times, with a 6.46 earned run average and a 2-10 record, allowing a batting average of .317 as a sophomore and .305 as a junior. Still, he was convinced his pitching was better than his numbers indicated and he wanted to prove it. A spot on a Southeastern Conference roster was exactly that opportunity.
Neff entered the program as what most graduate transfers are used for: emergency fill-ins, when injuries or recruiting holes leave voids in a roster. Injuries made the Mississippi State baseball team's bullpen thin, so it turned to Neff and has been rewarded handsomely. Neff has been the team's best left-handed relief pitcher on its run to the College World Series, which beings 7 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) against Washington (35-24).
"When the opportunity to come here arose, I jumped on it and never looked back," Neff said. "I had a great summer coming in here and I think it was a really great fit here.
"(MSU interim coach) Gary (Henderson)'s philosophy on pitching fits me to a T: I'm an attack on location kind of guy, throw a second pitch for a strike. He fit who I am as a pitcher and we just rolled with it."
In that new approach, Neff's numbers finally reflect his pitching: he has a 3.57 earned run average over 26 appearances, a 3-3 record and two saves. He has even started twice, getting the win both times as he covered a combined 10 innings in scoreless fashion, allowing five hits and striking out 10.
Neff's best work has been out of the bullpen. In the sweep of Arkansas that turned MSU's season around, Neff was called upon twice, throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings when MSU had no margin of error, as it won those games 5-3 and 7-5.
He has also rebounded well from his lowest moments. He allowed the walkoff home run Vanderbilt's JJ Bleday hit to win game two of the Nashville Super Regional, but entered game three in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on first, representing the run that would end MSU's season. Neff struck out the batter to end the bottom of the ninth and then retired two in the 10th.
Those moments are why he jumped on the opportunity to come to MSU (37-27). He wanted the ball in high-leverage situations against the best competition the sport has to offer.
"The SEC, first and foremost was the biggest thing: you're on TV almost every weekend, you're playing top-tier competition, playing the best players in college baseball for 30 games," Neff said, "and then there's the possibility of going to a Regional, going to a Super, going to the College World Series."
Thast was also why Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin wasn't thrilled to see Neff take the mound, saying he knew, "he was going to be tough to beat."
It did take some time for Neff to get that way. He said he never reached as much as the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship game in his time with Austin Peay, much less the NCAA tournament and the heights of it he currently occupies. The adrenaline of it all may have affected him early, as he allowed three earned runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings in the Tallahassee Regional, but since then he has found peace.
"In the regional I would say I was a little sped up, a little quick, I was kind of erratic with my pitches, throwing more balls than I normally do," Neff said. "I decided to slow it down and have fun with it."
Having fun around the game of baseball has never been an issue for him. Everywhere he has gone, Neff has been the clubhouse goofball, a role he wears with pride and continues to do so for MSU. Those quirks have only been boosted by rooming on the road with catcher Marshall Gilbert, who also is a clubhouse character.
In fact, the bleached hair that some players are sporting in this NCAA tournament run was his idea, and one on a whim at the Outback Steakhouse in Hoover, Alabama. It was a bold jump for him, much like his jump from Austin Peay to MSU, and he regrets none of it.
"It's what I've always been, it's kind of my personality. I like to have fun, I like to keep it loose, even in the bullpen when other people are pitching," Neff said. "We have to talk some more people into it (bleaching their hair), but I don't think that will be too hard."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson