Louisville Baseball Game Notes
Spotlight by Adam Pruiett, UofLsports.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A month after last June's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, a conflicted Derek Self worked out at Jim Patterson Stadium, uncertain whether the next baseball uniform he'd wear would be that of his college team for the last three years, the Louisville Cardinals, or that of a minor league affiliate with the Oakland A's.
Self's dream had always been to take the mound for a big league organization. Oakland was offering him the chance to realize that dream when the A's selected him in the 27th round. But some advice from his dad David stuck with him: follow your heart. While the standout right-hander was certainly excited about being drafted after his junior season, he wasn't on cloud nine. Not being ecstatic about the opportunity to sign a pro contract left Self feeling uneasy.
"I felt like I shouldn't have been hesitating," Self said. "I didn't have (overwhelming excitement), so I had doubts in my mind."
Self found clarity as he began throwing at Louisville's home ballpark, where so many cherished memories had been created through the years. His arm felt lively. His legs, which he'd been pounding in the weight room, felt powerful. He envisioned what his senior year could hold. He imagined how special the Cardinals could be. He considered his degree. And his mind was made up. He was staying put.
"I know for a fact it was the best decision for me to come back," Self said. "You know, it wasn't a hard decision at the end."
Louisville is grateful for that decision; the Cardinals' opponents are not. This season Self has registered a team-best four saves to complement a 1.50 ERA in seven appearances. He's allowed 10 hits and two earned runs in 12 innings, humming through the first 10.2 frames without allowing a run to cross.
"Derek is a high-class competitor," said fellow reliever and co-closer Matt Koch (Cherokee, Iowa/Cherokee Washington HS). "He'll be mad if he gives up a hit. He expects perfection out of himself and our team."
No. 21 Louisville (10-5) will host a pair of mid-week contests against No. 12 Mississippi (13-2) to kick off its second nine-game homestand of the season. The Cardinals and Rebels will meet at 6 p.m., ET on Tuesday before completing the two-game set at noon on Wednesday.
Fans can expect to see Self, who has been reliable in whatever role he's been asked to undertake during his career. Starting pitcher, long reliever, short reliever, set-up man, closer - you name it, he's done it at some point for the Cardinals. Within his 77 career appearances are 16 starts. He won the first 16 games of his career before he finally suffered a loss during his junior year, garnering Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America honors in his debut season after the first of consecutive 7-0 campaigns. Late last season Self made several starts, but this year he's returned to relief duty, much to his satisfaction.
"I love pressure situations and coming out there and having that mean streak to me," Self said. "As a starter, you're more relaxed. In the bullpen, you come furious. I love going out there with the game on the line."
It was during his fantastic freshman year in 2009 that Self's favorite individual moment of his Louisville tenure took place. With the Cardinals trailing Middle Tennessee 2-1 in the NCAA Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium, Self entered in the top of the seventh inning and electrified the crowd with a lights-out performance, firing three perfect innings and throwing an astonishing 27 strikes in 29 pitches. The Cardinals rallied for a 3-2 win and two days later sealed a berth in the Super Regional by beating Vanderbilt.
"I was in the zone," Self said. "It was, by far, the best appearance I've had here."
There will be plenty more appearances to come, and Self has never been more prepared for the rigors of a season. Instead of playing summer ball, Self opted to remain on campus and devote himself to training. He approached Eric Hammer, Louisville's Associate Director of Olympic Sports Performance, about customizing a workout program to enhance his pitching prowess.
"He's come a very long way in the weight room since he first arrived on campus as a freshman," said Hammer, who noted Self has added 25 pounds over his four-year career. "He was a guy that hated the weight room and didn't understand what it could do for him. Now, he's come full-circle and is 100 percent better. He truly believes that this is what helps him throw hard, stay healthy and do his job on the mound."
Ever the student of pitching - Koch said Self is "always trying to learn something new or find a better way of doing something" - Self worked with Louisville assistant baseball coach/pitching coach Roger Williams on a throwing program specifically designed to increase his velocity. The pair worked on recruiting Self's legs more into his delivery and accelerating his arm action. Self heavily credits Williams and Hammer for helping him reach the mid-90s on the radar gun.
"He's in the best physical condition right now that he's ever been in," Williams said. "His fastball velocity has really taken a jump and that off-season plan has been a big part of that."
Self didn't always bleed red. While growing up in Cave City, Ky., he was an avid University of Kentucky fan, decking out his room with UK paraphernalia. At the urging of his father, Self, who had gained interest mostly from smaller Division I schools while a senior at Caverna High School, attended a showcase camp at Louisville in hopes of increasing his exposure. It worked. Self caught the attention of Williams, who requested his presence the next day during the hitting portion of the camp even though Self didn't intend to take any swings.
On his official visit to Louisville, Self sat down with head coach Dan McDonnell in his office and received a scholarship offer. Self recalled that "Deep down, I felt something special" and was tempted to call McDonnell on the ride home and accept his offer. Just to be sure, Self slept on it. His enthusiasm hadn't waned the next morning, and he eagerly made the call to become a Cardinal, a move that was followed by a 50-win season, two BIG EAST regular season titles, a BIG EAST Tournament championship and bids in the Super Regional and Regional.
As for all that UK stuff in his room and the family basement?
"That was all thrown out," Self said. "I didn't want any part of that. Now when I come home, it's all black and red."