2012 BIG EAST Baseball Championship Central
Feature by Adam Pruiett, UofLsports.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Louisville senior closer Derek Self considers Justin Amlung a marvel of a student-athlete. It's not just that Amlung pitched his way into the ranks of the best hurlers ever to step foot on Louisville's campus. It's that he earned that exemplary standing all while making the challenging pursuit of an engineering degree.
"I don't know how he does it," Self (Cave City, Ky./Caverna HS) said. "I have so much respect for that. It's unreal how he's been doing it for four years."
It certainly hasn't been easy. The J.B. Speed School of Engineering demands immersive hours spent in the classroom and studying, and Amlung (Louisville, Ky./St. Xavier HS), now a fourth-year junior, frequently during his career had to miss all or part of numerous practices tending to his scholarly duties. As fast as his 90-plus mile-per-hour heater, Amlung would arrive at practice and get in his workouts before once again hitting the books.
"From about noon on, it was scramble mode, just trying to get everything done," Amlung said of his typical day trying to balance baseball and class work.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound right-hander proved to be a master juggler. Amlung will leave Louisville with a degree in civil engineering, furthering a legacy in an academic field that includes his father Dave, brother Damon and uncles Ray and Dara. As befitting of an engineering major, Amlung has the requisite appreciation for numbers, although he's perhaps too modest to list some of the most striking attached to his name. Here are a few:
2.74, the career ERA for Amlung in his three seasons, which is second all-time for the Cardinals.
"He's the bell cow," Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell said. "You need that cow that puts the bell around its neck and says, `Follow me.' That's why he pitches on Friday, and it's his job to set the tone for the pitching staff and he does that."
Amlung will take that metaphorical bell around his neck to the mound this week as top-seeded Louisville (38-18, 18-9 BIG EAST) returns to action at the 2012 BIG EAST Championship at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla. The No. 22 Cardinals captured their third conference title in four years after beating the Panthers two out of three games over the weekend. Louisville shares the league crown with St. John's, but the Cardinals have the No. 1 seed all to themselves after winning the regular season series over the Red Storm.
While Amlung had a rare off-night in his final regular season start against Pittsburgh last Thursday, the Cardinals' ace has been brilliant during the season's stretch run. In his preceding three outings, Amlung surrendered a mere one run over 22 innings, earning his second BIG EAST Conference Pitcher of the Week nod after shutting out St. John's over seven innings in a commanding performance that set the stage for Louisville securing the top seed in the conference tournament.
Amlung harkened back to one of his worst outings of the season - three earned runs on seven hits and three walks in six innings in taking a loss against Seton Hall - in attributing for his recent stretch of dominance. Amlung, for once, seemed to display some vulnerability in regard to his merciless schedule.
"The morning after that start I had an eight-hour exam, the Fundamentals of Engineering test," Amlung recalled. "I say that it wasn't bothering me one bit, but you talk to my mom (Sandy), girlfriend (Olivia) - (They said), `Yeah, you were stressed.' With that being over with, and the ending of school, I've got nothing else to worry about. I'm just having fun playing ball."
His having fun on the diamond translates into a whole lot of entertainment value for Louisville fans, not to mention wins for the Cardinals. Amlung is a rock-solid 8-3 this season, but his numbers testify he could easily have double-digit wins. His ERA (2.16) and batting average against (.192) are anemic. He's given up just 67 hits in 96 innings, with 94 strikeouts and only 21 walks.
"There's some things that really jump off the page to go, `Wow,' " McDonnell said. "You don't even have to see him pitch to look at his stat line and go, `This is a special pitcher.' Obviously when you see him, he's what I call a complete pitcher. He does it all: He fields his position, he controls the running game, he does everything he can possible to give himself a chance to win and give our team a chance to win. I always challenge the young pitchers - `I hope you learn a lot from Justin as to all the things he does to make himself a great pitcher.' "
Louisville's underclassmen are fortunate to have that opportunity. A First Team All-BIG EAST pick in 2011 after going 10-2 with a 2.31 ERA, Amlung last summer was selected in the 39th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Cincinnati Reds and strongly considered signing before ultimately opting to return to Louisville.
"It was very tough," Amlung said of the decision process. "I probably didn't sleep for a week. I was praying about it, thinking about it, calling everybody I could possibly think of - (former Cardinals draft picks) (Josh) Richmond, (Phil) Wunderlich, (Neil) Holland - just seeing what their take on it was. It was nerve-racking. I'd talk with the Reds, get off the phone, call my advisor. And then after I talked to him I'd call my parents. It was just back and forth, back and forth."
Amlung spent this season solidifying his draft status and backing up his selection as the BIG EAST's Preseason Pitcher of the Year. His dazzling numbers for the Cardinals came on the heels of a sensational summer campaign for the Wareham Gatemen in the Cape Cod League where he went 3-1 with a 1.76 ERA and was chosen to the All-Star team.
"Last year he was a little under the radar; he threw on Saturday, his resume wasn't as complete," McDonnell said. "This year there was the preseason BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year, the preseason All-American, he turned down the draft. There was real expectations this year. You could kind of say last year he kind of snuck on people some in some cases, but this year he is the guy you're talking about."
Self sees a teammate in total control when he's on the mound. The senior reliever said Amlung's pitches cross the knees of the opposing hitter about 90 percent of the time. Although Amlung is relatively reserved off the field and in the dugout, Self said when he takes the rubber "I can see the energy coming off him."
"He does not want to give a team life," Self said. "He wants to take the life right out of you if you're the opposing team. He attacks the zone and he just pumps it in there. He has full confidence he'll make a pitch and he does it.
"He just gets better and better each time. He finds a new tendency where he can get people out and he does it. He's just a winner."
And not just on the baseball diamond either.