LONG BEACH, Calif. -- "Honestly, I don't like Cal Poly one bit."
Darren McCaughan entered Friday night's start with a chip on his shoulder and some fire in his blood. The Long Beach State ace had been roughed up in his last start and he was pitching against a team that had previously overlooked him.
"In high school, they told me that I wasn't good enough to go there," McCaughan said. "They told me I should probably go to juco. Little did they know, I was coming here, so it just kind of fires me up to play them every time."
That motivation and a couple of small mechanical tweaks helped McCaughan produce one of the best starts of his career. He tossed a three-hit shutout and struck out 11 to lead the Dirtbags to a 3-0 win in the opener of an important conference series. He also became just the 10th Dirtbag to reach 20 career wins and the first since Cesar Ramos did so in 2005.
"McCaughan was great. He was fantastic," Long Beach State head coach Troy Buckley said after Friday's start. "Even more fantastic coming off what he did last weekend. That's what I'm proud of."
Against UC Davis a week ago, McCaughan was roughed up for a career-high eight runs in 4.1 innings. With the wind howling, Davis hit a double, a triple and three homers - all to left field. He was leaving the ball up and didn't have a feel for his changeup. The offense picked him up, leading the Dirtbags to a 14-9 win, but McCaughan knew he needed to make some adjustments.
As the conference season had progressed, the coaches had already noticed something different about McCaughan's delivery compared to last season. But McCaughan had been stellar in his first four conference starts this season, going 3-1, 1.35. He had worked into the eighth inning in all four, including back-to-back complete games prior to facing Davis.
With their ace pitching well, the coaches didn't want to make a change just to make a change. There was no need to mess with what was working. Like most pitchers, McCaughan is at his best when he is able to get into a rhythm and isn't contemplating his mechanics.
"When I'm not doing so well, I'm kind of thinking about too much maybe and trying to do too much with my pitches," he said last month.
By comparing film of McCaughan's start at Davis to when he was dominating last season, Buckley and first-year pitching coach Dan Ricabal noticed when McCaughan raised his left leg and began striding toward the plate, the bottom half of that front leg was bending at the knee and getting underneath his rear rather than dangling straight down. When he began to stride forward, the extra bend in his front leg was leading to a shorter stride and a compression of the front leg when landing. That led McCaughan to push the ball up instead of getting his hand on top of the baseball and getting extension forward as he released the ball.
It was a minor adjustment, but it allowed McCaughan to clear his hips and get out in front of the ball by working against a hard front side.
"I didn't even realize that I was doing it. It's not something you think about on the mound, but I think just hammering that in the week in all of my work that I was doing, it just translates over to the mound," McCaughan said.
He was able to command his 84-88 mph fastball with his normal fervor, moving it to both sides of the plate. McCaughan consistently got ahead and forced Cal Poly into defensive counts. He threw 111 pitches with 80 strikes, getting to two strikes on 21 batters, including 10 of the last 11.
"He just spots the ball, has a little bit of sink and mixes. And he competes. He's good," Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said.
After getting ahead, McCaughan worked in a changeup at 80-83 mph and his developing 77-80 slider. He felt both offspeed pitches were much better than his previous start. His sequencing followed a similar path to the game.
McCaughan had to quickly show his mettle against the Mustangs. It's hard to ever say that a game is decided in the first inning, but that's definitely when all the action was Friday night.
"First innings for me are big pitching coach situations," Buckley said. "We have six days to prepare for that first inning. How you're going to pitch it, how you're going to script it. You can do whatever you want to do. The challenge is to handle the adrenaline once the adrenaline injects into that pitcher."
The adrenaline immediately began flowing for McCaughan. One pitch into the game, Cal Poly had a runner in scoring position after the Dirtbags threw away a fairly routine chopper.
"I think it's hard to overcome bad first innings," Buckley said. "We always talk about make the first inning like the ninth inning. If you've got to throw the kitchen sink to put up a zero in the first inning, then you've got to do it."
McCaughan bore down. He got a popup to first base and a grounder to second that moved the runner over. Then McCaughan stranded him there with the first of his 11 strikeouts.
"You know that with McCaughan on the mound, it's going to be a low-scoring game," Lee said. "To put up a run in the first inning and play with a lead, that's a must."
Instead, it was the Long Beach offense able to do that. The Dirtbags scored two runs in the first, added one in the third and relied on their ace to carry them the rest of the way.
"Coming into this week, I knew it was going to be a big week for conference. Knew I had to get the team off on the right foot to start the weekend," McCaughan said. "I think that was kind of my job and I did that."
Buckley was more impressed with the way McCaughan took the coaches' advice, deployed a plan of attack to address the issues during a strong week of practice and then bounced back to perform in the opener of a series between two teams that sat atop the Big West standings entering the weekend.
"You got punched in the mouth and knocked to the mat," Buckley said. "It's a TKO-type of thing. Even though we won [last week], he had to get back to work because he did have to make a few little tweaks. Nothing crazy, but it showed up. That's really exciting when you can take those things and implement them and then see some results. That's like the best, best ever."
When McCaughan was invited to join USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team in the summer, he knew his opportunities were going to be limited with the number of quality power arms on the roster. Ultimately, his three innings over four appearances were the fewest by anyone that made the final travel roster. He didn't allow a run in his first three outings, earning a save over Chinese Taipei and getting out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the team's final exhibition game before traveling overseas. He blew a save giving up two runs in his final appearance, a 3-1 loss to Cuba.
But the experience was still worth it for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound righthander. He got to wear the red, white and blue. He got to travel to see different countries and cultures. And he got to learn from some of the best pitchers in college baseball.
McCaughan picked the brains of pitchers like North Carolina's J.B. Bukauskas, Florida's Alex Faedo and Vanderbilt's Kyle Wright, who combined to allow five earned runs in 54 innings last summer and should all hear their names in the first 15-20 picks in this summer's draft.
"You can learn a ton by how you watch a guy go about things," Buckley said. "Grips, what the process is, what the intentions are. A lot of different things."
For McCaughan, the focus was improving his breaking ball.
"I learned how everyone threw their sliders. Just kind of watching everyone throw and seeing how they would do it," McCaughan said. "It was mainly I wasn't getting out in front with it and that's kind of what I was seeing everyone do with it. The more they would get out in front with it, the better it would break down."
McCaughan's ERA (6-2, 2.97) hasn't been as good as last season (10-1, 2.03) as he's given up a couple more home runs already this year than he did in 2016, but his peripheral numbers are just as good, if not better. Opponents are hitting just .188 against him after batting .193 last year. His walk rate has slightly declined from 1.30 base on balls per nine innings to 1.02 and his strikeout rate is up from 6.8 to 8.2.
He leads the Big West allowing just 6.1 hits per game and is tied for the conference lead with four complete games. Two of those have been shutouts. Two of his other starts have been team shutouts. The Dirtbags lead the nation with nine shutouts. Nearly half have occurred when McCaughan starts.
That is partly due to his 8.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is top 10 in the nation. His walk rate is No. 15 in the country and he has college baseball's third-best WHIP. He is allowing 0.80 walks and hits each inning.
McCaughan credits his improvement to the development of the slider.
"I think I really improved my slider this year, which has been allowing me to put more guys away and just not running up my pitch counts as much," McCaughan said. "With Rico [Ricabal] coming in, he's helped me out a lot with it. Now I've got my fastball going, I've got my slider going, so it's been pretty good."
In one seventh-inning sequence on Friday, McCaughan got Cal Poly middle of the lineup bat Nick Meyer waving at a slider that finished more than a foot off the plate. He buzzed Meyer up and in with an 0-2 pitch and then threw the slider, starting it in the strike zone and letting it break into the lefthanders batting box. Meyer had no chance.
"What makes it better is that you have to respect the fastball and the command of the fastball," Buckley said. "That's where I think when he goes well, that's what he does and especially against righthanded hitters, it frees up the breaking ball to not have to be as wipeout-ish."
His fastball isn't overpowering but constantly throbbing the mitt. He can also throw his changeup in any count. With the breaking ball improving into a putout pitch, honestly, hitters don't like facing Darren McCaughan one bit.