Illinois closer Tyler Jay has been just about untouchable this season. Michael Baumann explores Jay's rise to elite prospect status and explains what makes him so good.

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Golden Spikes Spotlight: Tyler Jay

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Illinois’ closer, Tyler Jay has pitched the team’s biggest innings, and done so with incredible success: 5-1, 0.73, with nine saves and 54 strikeouts against only four walks and 26 hits (22 of them singles) in 49 1/3 innings. Such results mean that college hitters cause him less trouble than one of the most important decisions any closer can make: choosing entrance music.

“It’s stressful—you’ve got the whole year to think about it and guys are going back and forth throughout the year,” Jay said.

Jay kept his choice a secret from his teammates until the season was around the corner, and like everything else, it seems to have worked.

“When I played on Team USA, (Arizona State pitcher) Ryan Burr played a song in the locker room and I really liked it,” he said. “It’s like a Celldwellers dubstep ‘War Pigs’ mashup. It’s pretty rocking and dubsteppy, and it gets me going.”

It seems an appropriate choice for a player like Jay. Because for all his cheerful self-confidence, the care he puts into his music, or his demeanor off the field (Illinois pitching coach Drew Dickinson called him “a little goofball”), the truth about Illinois’ star closer is very simple: As a pitcher, he is the absolute goods.

“I don’t really think of myself as a power pitcher,” Jay said. He says his best trait as a pitcher is his ability to locate his fastball, not his stuff. It’s difficult to agree with that if you’ve seen the stuff, which is as loud and aggressive as his entrance music—“rocking and dubsteppy,” you could say.

Take the fastball, for instance.

“The command of in, out, up and down is second to none,” Dickinson said. “It’s starter command in a closing role with closer stuff.”

Being able to put a fastball on the black, at will, with near-Eshelmanian precision, is impressive when the fastball comes in at 93-97 mph, as Jay’s does. And that’s only the beginning.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis is perhaps the best big man in the NBA because he grew 10 inches in his last three years of high school. Davis had to develop a guard’s ball skills and agility to make up for not having a center’s size, and the fact that he retained those skills after his growth spurt made him a uniquely dangerous two-way player in college and the pros.

That’s kind of what happened to Jay, who showed up in Champaign throwing in the mid-80s and has added some 10 mph to his fastball velocity in the past 30 months.

“In high school I didn’t necessarily throw as hard as I do now—obviously, I didn’t,” Jay said. “I kind of pitched backwards, throwing a lot of first-pitch curveball, first-pitch slider, offspeed stuff. I developed the location to be able to get outs in high school, and … once I got the speed I was able to keep that.”

Jay came in with command and a curveball, and now he’s got a big league fastball with three effective secondary offerings, any of which he feels comfortable throwing in any situation.

First off is the curveball, a big sweeper that starts up high and in to lefties, then goes out to run some errands, maybe stops for a cup of coffee and a newspaper on the way home, and ends up on the inside chalk of the right-handed batter’s box. The next option is a devastating mid-80s Frisbee slider that runs in on righties like a dog that’s really happy to see you. Then there’s the mysterious changeup, an offering that both Jay and Dickinson love, but is hardly ever needed in a one-time-through-the-order situation.

That’s a starter’s repertoire, and despite his size and the fact that 63 of his 64 college appearances have come from the bullpen, Jay projects as a starter in pro ball.

Which raises perhaps the most common question in Big Ten baseball this year: What in the world is Jay doing coming out of the bullpen?

There are many reasons, even if none is entirely satisfying: Jay’s pitching fewer innings, but the innings he’s pitching come in higher-leverage situations. With Illinois’ pitching depth, the Illini can afford to keep not only Jay but Nick Blackburn in the bullpen and not miss a beat. And after all, the Illini have a 40-6-1 record and the lowest ERA in the Big Ten by almost half a run, so even if the process isn’t that great, the results have been.

Nonetheless, Dickinson recognizes that using Jay for only an inning at a time is a waste of the conference’s most talented arm. Therefore, he’s put Jay on a starter’s throwing regimen, so he’ll be ready to pitch a longer stint or make a spot start if the need arises.

“We’ve kept him stretched out, because you know there might be a time in Omaha or the postseason where you’re going to want him to start, because it’s a must-win, and he can go get it,” Dickinson said. “Or there’s going to be a time where it’s like, end of five, you’re up 2-0, and you’re like, ‘That’s it, we’re going to the shutdown guy and we’re going to live and die with our best arm.’ ”

Jay found himself in one of those situations two weekends ago at Penn State. He came in for the eighth inning for what was supposed to be a pretty standard six-out save, but for only the second time all year he allowed a run, and when the game went into extra innings, he stayed in for six innings and a season-high 99 pitches. Not only did Jay have to change from a high-octane closer to a more endurance-focused starter, he had to do it between innings.

“It’s hard,” Jay said of the Penn State outing. “The first inning out there you don’t really pace yourself because I’m supposed to do my job and get the save. I didn’t do my job and I wasn’t going to let my team down twice in one game. That’s just not my mentality — not my expectation of myself. I was throwing out there until they told me I couldn’t.”

Illinois lefthander Tyler Jay (Illinois)Illinois lefthander Tyler Jay (Illinois)

Scenarios like these happen every year in college baseball’s postseason — closers being asked to start an elimination game without being stretched out, Friday night starters throwing twice in four days — and they’re always the source of sometimes career-threatening pitcher abuse. Opening that possibility up raises red flags. Not only is Dickinson aware of this, he’s proactively taking steps to protect his relief ace.

“I’ve never put a kid, ever in my life … in to win a game, and (done) something that was going to hurt him,” Dickinson said.

In addition to helping Jay build up his stamina, Dickinson is keeping a close eye on other potential injury factors. Jay’s midweek throwing regimen varies based on his weekend workload, so he retains his stamina after light weeks but doesn’t get overworked on heavy ones.

Sometimes Jay will go through a starter’s warmup routine before a longer scheduled relief appearance, including long toss outside the stadium. Dickinson also looks beyond raw pitch counts for potential trouble spots. Pitchers can get hurt just from getting up and down in the bullpen, so as a matter of doctrine, if Jay warms up, he pitches in the game.

There are also ways in which Jay helps himself. He’s got the loose, easy delivery and springy gait that you’ll see in pitchers his size who succeed long-term as starters. He says he stresses out when he fixates on one thing all the time, so he needs a hobby to take his mind off of baseball from time to time. The hobby he chose was weight training, so if he does get hurt, it won’t be because he’s out of shape.

There’s also a hidden health benefit to Jay pitching as well as he has.

“As a starting pitcher, the biggest thing you look at is not how many pitches, it’s how many of those pitches were high-stress pitches, and he’s never thrown high-stress pitches,” Dickinson said.

High-stress innings tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with lots of baserunners. Jay keeps his pitch count down because by attacking hitters in the zone and, simply put, not allowing that many baserunners.

“The most pitches he’s thrown in an inning? Twenty-one,” Dickinson said. “The kid’s efficient. Even when he gave up three runs (against South Florida), he did it in 16 pitches, still — it’s guys trying to ambush a fastball and they get lucky here and there.”

There are programs that operate as if players’ careers end at graduation. While winning for its own sake is of paramount importance at Illinois, Dickinson is aware of his role in grooming prospects — Jay first among them — for the professional game.

“I’m talking about pro ball with these guys — I want to prepare them for professional baseball, and that’s what these guys do,” Dickinson said.

Illinois catcher Jason Goldstein calls most of the game, with the coaches chiming in for only a handful of pitches.

“Goldstein is a big league catcher in the sense (that he’s) so prepared,” Dickinson said. “Hand him a scouting report, and a half hour later … he’ll basically recite the entire scouting report back to me. It’s like he has a photographic memory — it’s amazing. He’s so smart and he puts so much time and effort into our staff, which the greatest catchers do.”

Jay is content to hand over that part of the game to his batterymate.

“I really just pound in, pound away, just hit my spots and trust what Goldstein’s calling,” Jay said.

Jay’s professional demeanor — his work ethic, his willingness to learn — are attributes that Dickinson praises before even mentioning Jay’s command or the hard break on his slider, and it’s why he’s so hands-off with his top pitchers during games.

“Pro guys talk like this: ‘You want to throw a fastball in, run a fastball for a ball off the plate, back-foot a slider,’ ” Dickinson said. “You talk about balls off the plate, and what happens is they execute it. When you start talking that way, you execute at a super-high level. That’s what Tyler does, that’s what (Kevin) Duchene does. And when you speak like that, you’re ahead of the game.”

Even so, all the hard work and coaching in the world doesn’t get you the second-best ERA in college baseball by itself. Jay’s preparation might be as meticulous as a classical pianist’s, but the results are pure thrash metal.

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