Creighton freshman Tommy Strunc has made strides this season, going from a guy who pitches in big games to a big-game pitcher.
The right-hander still must make additional development before he's truly capable of dominating an opponent, coach Ed Servais said.
“Tommy still needs to learn to pitch a little bit,” Servais said. “Right now, he's a thrower. He's got a plus arm, and I like his slider.
“To get to that next level of pitching, he has to learn to pitch so that he's not predictable. Once he figures that out, he has a chance to be really special, but we have to get to that next level with him.”
The pitcher Strunc will oppose in Thursday's 12:30 p.m. game against Missouri State has reached that level. Junior right-hander Nick Petree has won 27 games over the past three seasons, posting an 8-1 record and a 1.55 ERA this season.
Petree, the Missouri Valley's 2012 pitcher of the year, has struck out 100 batters in 87 innings this season. He is the first pitcher in program history to notch back-to-back 100-strikeout seasons.
Strunc's numbers are a bit more modest: a 7-2 record, a 4.15 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 65 innings. Strunc's most important numbers might be 10-2, which is Creighton's record in games he has started this season.
He's given the Bluejays what every team needs from its No. 1 starter: the chance to win the opening game of a series and set a tone for the weekend.
“To be a Friday-night guy, you have to hate to lose,” Strunc said. “It has to eat at you every time you lose a game. You have to go out there every time with the idea that you're going to find a way to win, that you're going to be a gamer.
“You can't let things affect you. You have to throw every pitch with confidence.”
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Creighton pitching coach Tom Lipari has enjoyed watching Strunc's confidence grow as he's navigated through the season. Strunc came into the year untested after redshirting last season as a true freshman.
“It's been fun to watch his confidence grow,” Lipari said. “From a development standpoint, that's been the biggest thing with Tommy. He's always had good stuff, but his confidence just seems to be getting better each time out.
“He's had a couple of rough outings, but usually his next start has been pretty good. He bounces back well. Typically it's more of a roller-coaster ride.”
Strunc's two losses have come on the road, giving up four runs in five innings at Indiana State and six runs in two innings at Illinois State. He came back to win each of his next starts, pitching eight innings of no-hit ball to beat Southern Illinois a week after losing to the Sycamores.
He came back from the Illinois State defeat to pitch the first five innings of last Friday's series-opening win over Wichita State. He wasn't spectacular, but helped get the Bluejays started toward a 6-5 win.
In order to make the next step as a pitcher, Lipari said, Strunc must develop greater consistency while developing his third pitch.
“That change-up could become a really good pitch for him, especially with his velocity,” Lipari said. “If he can get a little more consistent with his delivery and that change-up comes around, he's going to be as good as it gets.”
Servais also believes Strunc must get mentally tougher when he's pitching away from home. In five starts at TD Ameritrade, Strunc has allowed just 13 hits in 3113 innings (.129 batting average). His ERA at home is 2.30.
In seven starts away from home, Strunc has a 5.88 ERA and has allowed 35 hits in 3323 innings.
“Another step he has to make is to take that home stuff on the road with him,” Servais said.
Strunc's final regular-season start will come at home against the Bears. He'll then pitch Creighton's opening game of the Valley tournament Tuesday at Normal, Ill.
Both are big games, and Strunc wants to be at his best.
“My last few starts I haven't been as consistent,” Strunc said. “I had a phase there where for four or five games, I was lights out. I need to be that the entire season.
“I can't just have a phase or two during the season.”
>> NOTES: Creighton (28-15) and Missouri State (29-19) enter the series tied for third place in the Valley with 11-7 records. Both teams have a chance to earn the No. 2 seed for the Valley tournament, but the series appears more likely to be a battle for the No. 3 seed. ... Thursday's game is expected to draw about 9,000 students from Omaha-area elementary schools. ... Creighton will honor its six seniors — Alex Staehely, Jordan Makovicka, Brennan Murphy, Nick Musec, Michael Blatchford and Mark Winkelman — before Saturday's 1 p.m. game.
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