Kent State has been the most consistent program in the North since the 1980s. The Golden Flashes recently reached the 30-win plateau for the 30th consecutive season - a streak that includes eight 40-plus win seasons, 12 trips to regionals and a run to the 2012 College World Series. The program has kept winning through coaching changes, from Bob Todd to Danny Hall to Rick Rembielak to Scott Stricklin to Jeff Duncan - there hasn't been a dip.
There are some common threads running through all those years of success. For one thing, Kent State always seems to have a big-time ace atop the rotation, especially in the last 22 years under pitching coach Mike Birkbeck. KSU has produced a couple of first-round picks this decade (Andrew Chafin and Eric Lauer, whose 0.69 ERA in 2016 was college baseball's lowest in 30-plus years). The Flashes have produced six big league pitchers, from Matt Guerrer to John Van Benschoten, Dirk Hayhurst to Andy Sonnanstine to Chris Carpenter and Chafin.
So it means something to be the Friday night ace at Kent State. And Joey Murray is a worthy bearer of the flame for the Flashes.
Murray, a junior righthander, is well on his way to becoming Kent State's latest All-American. Through 12 starts, he's 8-1, 1.02 with 117 strikeouts and a .146 opponents' batting average in 79.1 innings. His name is all over the national leaderboards - he ranks first in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, fourth in ERA and strikeouts, 10th in WHIP.
"Obviously when you're rolling out a Friday guy like Joey Murray, it's kind of like rolling Lauer out two years ago," said Duncan, Kent State's fifth-year head coach. "At times it seems unhittable."
Not bad for a guy who flew under the radar during his high school days in Dublin, Ohio.
"He was the last recruit we got in that class," Duncan said. "We got him at an unsigned senior showcase at the beginning of the fall of his senior year. Birky and I were sitting behind home plate and saw him strike out 16 of 18 hitters. And that's exactly what he's doing now, basically. Probably at that point in time, the velo was 84-86, but he's a big kid, he's strong, he's got a big lower half. The arm really works, it really works, and I don't know how he slipped through the cracks, we were lucky."
Duncan and Birkbeck saw the feel for pitching and the ability to miss bats at a young age, and they envisioned that Murray would add velocity as he matured. Now he's a 6-foot-2, 185-pound workhorse who pitches in the 88-91 mph range and bumps 92.
Last week against Bowling Green, Murray found another gear from the third inning on, which is pretty typical for him, according to Duncan. He pitched at 90-92 from the third to the sixth, and that's when he really racked up many of his 14 strikeouts over seven shutout innings of work.
Murray has a quality four-pitch mix, and Duncan said all four pitches have gotten just a little bit better since last year, when he went 6-1, 1.80 with 110 strikeouts in 75 innings. He can use all four pitches to keep hitters off balance, but his fastball and downer curve are his out pitches, accounting for most of his punchouts.
"He's very deceptive, really good fastball command," Duncan said. "Now this guy, it's one of those things, every Friday night he starts, we've got 15 to 20 scouts coming in to watch him, and they're not saying he's lighting the gun up, but man, the swings and misses he gets, I think he's third in the country in Ks, he's averaged almost two strikeouts an inning since he's been here. It's been pretty phenomenal, his spin rate out of his hand is unbelievable. It's like his fastball rises, got a rising action to it, guys have a tough time getting on top, will either pop him up or swing right through it. Then he's got a really good breaking ball to go with it, changes eye level. He'll go fastball up in the zone then his breaking ball will start up in the zone, and it's really late 12-6 so it breaks down. He'll pitch in, he'll use all four points of the plate with his fastball. … He throws across his body a little bit, high three-quarters, and it comes out of his hand - it's one of those fastballs that look like it's 97."
Duncan said he expects Murray to be a high-rounds pick based on his arsenal, his command and his superb performance over multiple seasons. But he also stands out for his competitiveness - he sets the tone for Kent State every Friday night. Duncan describes his personality this way: "Give me the ball on Friday. And don't take me out. That's the best way to put it."
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