As the series opener against UC Riverside progressed last Saturday, Washington junior righthander Joe DeMers kept putting up zeroes. Early in the game? Zeroes. Middle innings? Zeroes. So, when UW pitching coach Jason Kelly peeked up at the scoreboard in the eighth inning, it finally started to sink in. Not only was DeMers closing in on a no-hitter, he was on the verge of recording the first perfect game in Husky history.
Perhaps no pitching coach expects his arms to record a perfect game at any point in their careers, but when the Huskies signed DeMers out of high school, Kelly envisioned being able to share many of these types of moments with the premier righty. He was expected to be an elite arm in college baseball and a total game-changing prospect for UW.
DeMers got through that eighth inning against UCR unscathed and came out for the ninth with a surprisingly low pitch count. The first Highlanders hitter grounded out to third, the next struck out looking, and the final batter of the game flew out to center field.
The impossible had been accomplished. DeMers threw a perfect game. Kelly, who recruited DeMers and has taught him tricks of the trade the last two seasons, couldn't help but to soak it all in as the Huskies celebrated with their history-making hurler.
"It's something I've never been a part of, and it's not something you really anticipate at all," Kelly said. "You don't know how you're going to feel if it happens, but we got to about the eighth inning and then I realized this could happen. I was just excited for him, because he pitched so well.
"Honestly, from my perspective, it wasn't all about the perfect game," he continued. "It was about him. There aren't many days in your pitching career when you go out there and throw almost every pitch for a strike, and throw it exactly where you want it. That performance was the culmination of a lot of hard work for Joe."
Though some pitchers were lucky enough to pitch in warmer temperatures last weekend, DeMers did the deed in brutally cold temperatures - officially 43 degrees and cloudy in Seattle. In other words, you'd expect a pitcher to be somewhat rusty.
Not DeMers. Not on this day. The righty, who just missed our College Top 100 Prospects list in the preseason, but certainly could scale the rankings with a fast start, sat 87-91 and up to 92 mph with his sinking fastball. He showed great fastball command, a good changeup and threw a 79-82 mph slider for strikes.
He struck out nine batters, and get this: he also finished the afternoon with only 84 pitches.
"It wasn't the warmest of days, but he was really sharp. He was throwing the slider for strikes and really did a nice job of keeping them off balance," Kelly said. "To strikeout nine guys and throw just 84 pitches. That's crazy. It wasn't like he had two strikeouts like some of those old Greg Maddux performances where he had three strikeouts and threw just 90 pitches. He still had nine strikeouts." DeMers also challenged hitters throughout the contest. Though some pitchers would get obsessed with nibbling on the outside part of the plate with a no-hitter or perfect game in their crosshairs, Kelly said his hard-nosed righty attacked hitters from the first to the last out.
"He wasn't afraid to go in there and challenge hitters," he said. "Once you get to the seventh inning in that type of situation, you want to try so hard and you want to nibble and try to just get outs. He just kept going after guys, and that was really impressive to me."
The junior righthander's first two starts this season could be a turning point for his immediate future as a college pitcher and long-term future as a professional prospect.
The former Perfect Game All-American Classic competitor exited high school with incredibly high expectations. He was the No. 9 high school prospect in California and was ranked No. 48 with a strong commitment to Washington. He was going to be an instant impact arm for Lindsay Meggs' Huskies. Not everything went as planned for DeMers. He made 16 starts as a freshman, but the results weren't good. He tallied a 6.91 ERA in 71.2 innings, struck out 32 and walked 19. And get this: teams hit the righty at a .385 clip, something Kelly said he's never seen outside of that aberration from DeMers.
"Joe was giving up an average of something like 15 hits per nine innings as a freshman. He was throwing strikes, but was just getting hit really hard," he said. "Now? He never really has to give in and he can throw the ball on both sides of the plate, up and down, whenever he wants to." DeMers took a significant step forward last season. He tallied a 3.35 ERA in 14 starts and 99.1 innings and struck out 65. Teams didn't hit him at a .385 clip like his freshman season, but they did hit at a .289 clip, illustrating that he still had some work to do."
This season, DeMers, through two starts, looks like the guy everyone thought he'd be out of high school. He has a huge arm and has the ability to reach back and touch 94-95 mph with his fastball when he wants to. But he feels more comfortable throwing at a slightly lower speed with better command. DeMers, who has yet to allow a run in 15 innings, while also striking out 16 and walking three, continues to throw a good changeup, while he's made big strides with the slider. When he arrived in Seattle, his primary breaking ball was more of a curveball. But now, he feels more comfortable with the fast-developing slider, giving him a strong three-pitch mix and setting the stage for what should be a fruitful junior season.
"The big thing with Joe has been his commitment to command and his overall development of the stuff. It was about learning to sink his fastball and really developing the changeup and slider," Kelly said. "He's become a more dynamic pitcher and he's doing whatever he needs to do to experience success at this level. "He's pitching in to righties and lefties, he's pitching backwards and he's doing a great job of exploiting hitter's weaknesses," he continued. "There's not really a hitter or lineup that seems to be giving him trouble right now. The changeup has always been good, but now it's really good. The slider has been the big one for him. He's taken that pitch to another level, and that's helped him become a more well-rounded pitcher."
DeMers and Kelly will forever remember what happened this past Saturday, but they don't want that to be the only special memory this season. As a team, the Huskies still have some pieces to put together to get where they want to be at the end of the season. But at least so far, there's been one constant, and that's the arm of the righty from California.
He's back on the national map, and he might just be here to stay.
"Having a guy like Joe on Friday, it not only gives you some reliability, but it also gives you a guy who can go out there and shut someone out," he said. "Noah Bremer and Tyler Davis could beat other people's Friday guys, but there's no doubt having a guy like Joe makes teams a little more thoughtful and how they approach you both offensively, and how they use even their own pitchers throughout the weekend."
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