May 16, 2014
By Scott Gierman
DALLAS, Texas - Southern Illinois junior pitcher Sam Coonrod did not get a chance to ease into his collegiate career. His first appearance in a Saluki uniform came as a true freshman in 2012 against North Florida. On the second day of the season, starter Cameron Maldonado had just given up a game-tying home run with no outs in the sixth inning when Coonrod was summoned from the bullpen.
"I just remember I was pretty nervous because I had obviously never pitched in college," Coonrod said. "It was pretty loud, especially because they knew it was my first time."
Coonrod immediately walked his first batter and hit the next one. Sensing a chance to rattle the young hurler, the UNF bench hopped to the top step of the dugout and made as much noise as they could.
Throwing only fastballs, Coonrod was undeterred. He settled down and finished the inning without allowing any runs. He then threw an easy scoreless seventh inning and even picked up the win after SIU rallied for a couple runs.
"I just remember everything spinning really fast, but somehow I got out of it," Coonrod said.
That first outing stuck with SIU pitching coach P.J. Finigan. While his freshman pitcher may have been nervous, he never showed it.
"North Florida tried to get in his head, and he never ever looked rattled, nervous, scared, anything," Finigan said. "I just remember the light bulb going off for me that this kid can be whatever he wants to be. As a coach, when you get kids like that, that's who you're going to win with."
Now that Coonrod is a draft-eligible junior with the Salukis, virtually all the scouts agree that he has a good chance to become a Major League pitcher. With his mid-90s fastball and a hypercompetitive attitude, the experts say he will be taken in the first few rounds of next month's MLB draft.
Finigan remembers driving up to Carrollton to see Coonrod for the first time. Coonrod was the late SIU Coach Dan Callahan's last recruit and had already verbally committed to the Salukis before Finigan was hired as the pitching coach prior to the 2011 season. Finigan had talked to the high school prospect on the phone but wasn't sure what to expect when he saw him in person.
Typically, the starting pitcher will go through a fairly long set routine in the bullpen to warm up his arm and mentally prepare for the game. Coonrod was not typical.
"I got there about 45 minutes before the game started, and I never saw him play catch or do anything," Finigan said. "I kept waiting, kept waiting, kept waiting down by the bullpen and never saw him."
When his team began taking infield/outfield practice, Coonrod emerged and began throwing from the game mound.
"I've never seen that before," Finigan said. "He threw about 10 or 12 pitches, and the coach walked over to him and said, Hey, we're going to home plate now. You need to finish up. He threw a few more, and then he threw the last one as hard as he possibly could about halfway up the backstop."
Finigan estimates Coonrod threw 15 warm up pitches and maybe three or four strikes, but he was ready to go when the game started.
"I'll never forget," Finigan said. "He threw the first one right down the middle about 91 (miles per hour), and the whole place was just going crazy. I think he gave up one hit in five innings, and they 10-run ruled the team, but from what I saw pregame and what I saw during the game was night and day difference. I couldn't believe it, but I was pretty excited that he was going to be a Saluki."
Coonrod is often excited on the mound and has not been afraid to express his emotions. Whether giving a fist pump for a big strikeout or yelling into his glove after a mistake, he can take a fighter's mentality to the hill. He said he gets that competitive spirit from battling with his younger brother, Joey, growing up.
"I think it was just from me and my brother always playing baseball in the backyard every day," Coonrod said. "It usually ended up in a fight."
While he has been great at times, he has struggled with consistency over his career. Although he doesn't have many wins to show for it, he has pitched well in the second half of this season, putting together a 1.50 ERA over his last four starts and finally picking up his first win last weekend against Mississippi Valley State. Despite allowing six unearned runs on Thursday, he has a 2.79 ERA in eight starts since the beginning of this year's conference season.
"I've learned to slow everything down, slow the game down so that it doesn't get too fast for me," Coonrod said. "At the beginning of the year, I wasn't as good, but I think I've gotten a lot better at it. If I throw a couple balls in a row or even walk somebody, I go to the back of the mound and think I'm going to really stay through the catcher on these next few throws."
Finigan has been impressed by Coonrod's ability to control his emotions, which has been a big part of his recent success.
"I think he's just matured mentally," Finigan said. "He's done a great job of stepping back and being able to look at things objectively, not in the heat of the moment with emotions involved."
As the season winds down and he continues to progress, Coonrod has unlimited potential if he can improve his consistency.
"He shows flashes in the pan of just being completely dominant," Finigan said. "I think the more and more that he can repeat that, the more and more he can continue to be consistently good, he has the stuff that he can pitch in the big leagues if he really wanted to."