Tommy Strunc came back to Creighton last fall knowing that there were jobs to be won on the Bluejays’ pitching staff.
Given what Strunc has done from then until now, it’s safe to say he has earned himself one.
The redshirt freshman has emerged as the Bluejays’ No. 1 starter and will take a 4-0 record into Friday’s game against the University of Nebraska at Omaha at TD Ameritrade Park.
“In this program, you have to earn things,” Strunc said. “Coach is always telling us that nothing is going to be given out, nothing’s for certain. I knew coming back last fall that I wanted to be one of the starting guys in the rotation.
“I knew to do that I was going to have to go out and prove myself.”
That mindset continues to drive Strunc.
“Every time I go out, I’m pitching to prove that I belong there,” he said. “There’s a difference between knowing that you belong out there and wanting to show it. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
The manner in which he is doing it has eased some of the concerns coach Ed Servais and pitching coach Tom Lipari brought into the season. Creighton lost all three of its weekend starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team.
Senior Nick Musec was the only pitcher on the staff who had started more than once in the same season. Musec has settled into the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Strunc, a hard-throwing right-hander from Highlands Ranch, Colo.
“Tommy has done everything he’s needed to do,” Servais said. “He went out and pitched, and pitched well, last summer in the Prospect League. He came back last fall intent on grabbing one of those open spots.
“He dominated our hitters in the fall.”
He’s carried that over into the spring season. He struggled a little in his collegiate debut at Dallas Baptist, giving up five runs and walking four hitters in 3 23 innings.
In his four starts since, Strunc has not allowed more than two runs. He has allowed 17 hits and struck out 27 in 25½ innings. He has issued only 10 walks, which Servais said has been a key in his development.
“He’s doing a good job of throwing strikes,” the coach said. “He’s capable of missing bats. He’s our best pitcher when it comes to the ability to strike guys out.
“His velocity has jumped a bit since he’s gotten stronger. When he came in as a freshman, we thought he had the ability to be a power arm for us. He was a little inconsistent in the strike zone but as he’s started to throw more strikes, more opportunities have come his way.”
Creighton pitchers learn quickly the one thing the head coach won’t tolerate is guys who fight the strike zone. Servais’ system is set up on pitching and defense, and his pitchers have heard once if not 1,000 times that the one thing you can’t defend is the base on balls.
“Coach always says you have to throw strikes,” Strunc said. “As a redshirt, I came in and I was a little wild. I was out there trying to do too much. Now, I’ve gotten my off-speed together and I’m locating my fastball.
“That makes all the difference in the world.”
Last week’s Missouri Valley opener against Evansville provided a glimpse of the growth Strunc is making. He was having difficulty with the strike zone early in the game but he refused to give in to the wildness.
The result was he walked just one batter, scattered six hits over his six innings and emerged with his fourth win of the season.
“The first couple innings it was pretty clear that we were working with a small strike zone, and it was pretty obvious I was a little flustered when I’d come into the dugout between innings,” he said. “I just tried to settle in. I decided I was going to have to throw it over the plate and let my defense work.
“I have one of the best defenses in the country behind me. Once I got that in my mind, I started having successful, 1-2-3 innings. That is what I need to continue to do.”
Servais is convinced Strunc will continue making progress as the Bluejays get deeper into the season.
“I think we’ll continue to see him keep doing the good things he’s been doing — attacking the strike zones and trusting the people he has behind him,” Servais said. “The thing he needs to do is find a way to keep his pitch count down.
“He’s getting to where he’s at around 110 pitches six innings in. We’d like to see him get into the eighth on that many pitches. He needs to get a little more efficient, but I think he’s capable of doing that.”
»NOTES: Musec (0-3, 5.04 ERA) will pitch Saturday’s game, which will be played at Werner Park. The series will move back to TD Ameritrade on Sunday, with Matt Warren (1-0, 4.05 ERA) starting that game. UNO’s starters will be Zach Williamsen (0-1, 2.12) on Friday, Cory Buckley (0-3, 5.23 ERA) on Saturday and Tyler Fox (1-1, 5.06 ERA) on Sunday. … The teams split a pair of games last season, with UNO winning the first game 3-2 and Creighton taking the second 6-1. Creighton leads the series 46-28. … Friday’s game will be the last of 11 straight road games for the Mavericks (5-12). … Creighton left fielder Brad McKewon has reached base safely in 21 straight games, including all 17 this season. First baseman Reagen Fowler also has reached base in every game this season.
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