CLEMSON, S.C. — It’s almost surprising that pro scouts keep packing the stands behind home plate for Rhett Lowder starts. Why bother? By now, you know exactly what you’re going to see.
The Wake Forest ace is going to carve up the strike zone at 92-94 mph, or when he’s at his best like he was against Notre Dame, he’ll attack at 93-96. He’s going to showcase one of college baseball’s best changeups, an 85-87 mph offering with elite arm speed, deception and fade. Most days, he’s also going to show advanced feel for a late-biting slider at 82-83. He’s going to throw any of his three pitches in any count, to righties or lefties. And he’s going to deal for six-plus innings, then earn a victory.
That’s just what Lowder does. He’s remarkably consistent, every time out. And Lowder was just typical Lowder on Thursday night at Clemson, turning in seven strong innings of two-run ball (one earned), striking out six while scattering seven hits and a walk. It wasn’t his best outing, certainly — but it was rock-solid, had he felt like he was in complete command throughout, leading the second-ranked Demon Deacons to an 8-3 win in the series opener.
“To have him is a luxury that we don’t take for granted,” Wake Forest coach Tom Walter said. “And he’s just so tough. He just makes pitches with men on base. All three pitches are in play at all times to both left and righthanded hitters, so it just makes it really hard to go up there and game plan against him.”
Lowder already established himself as one of college baseball’s elite pitchers last year, when he went 11-3, 3.08 with 105 strikeouts against 26 walks in 99.1 innings to earn ACC Pitcher of the Year honors. Yet somehow, he’s been even better as a junior. Thursday was the fifth time in seven starts that Lowder has gone seven innings while allowing one or fewer earned run — the man is just automatic. He’s now 6-0, 1.40 on the season, with 54 strikeouts against just eight walks in 45 innings.
Lowder is his own harshest critic, of course, and he said he thought he came out “a little flat” on Thursday, despite striking out the first batter of the game and working around a two-out single in a scoreless first. But he said he felt better as the game went on, and he “got a little bit more juiced up” when center fielder Tommy Hawke made a leaping catch to steal a home run from Jacob Jarrell in the third.
We’ve seen Lowder more dominant; in previous seven-inning starts this year, he’s limited opponents to three hits on two occasions, and just one hit another time. He did not have a clean 1-2-3 inning until the seventh on Thursday — but Clemson also did not advance a runner into scoring position in any of the first five frames, as Lowder characteristically buckled down with a man on first. Then in the sixth, he gave up a bloop double to shallow right-center to Will Taylor, then got cleanup man Cade Grice to hit a little nubber that Lowder fielded himself — then slipped on the wet turf and threw the ball down the right-field line, allowing Taylor to score. Lowder tweaked his hip a little on the play but stayed in the game and retired the next three batters in order.
“Rhett Lowder was the story today, just awesome,” Walter said. “That seventh inning he threw, kind of tweaked his hip on that slow roller from Grice, and he wanted the ball in the seventh, and I give him a lot of credit for that. His pitch count was relatively low, but he certainly could have asked out of that game in that situation, but he wanted to go out there, and got three big outs.”
Walter said Lowder has the best pitchability of anyone he’s ever coached — though emerging sophomore lefty Josh Harlte isn’t too far behind him, in Walter’s estimation. Lowder’s starts are always a clinic in craftsmanship for so many reasons, but I’m always struck by his ability to locate his changeup right-on-right to both sides of the plate — something you very rarely see. His feel for that pitch is just innate and special.
“It’s just something so natural for me, I’m lucky to say that’s the only pitch I’ve thrown the exact same way my entire life,” Lowder said. “Ever since I started throwing a changeup, I’ve thrown it with the same grip, thrown it the same way. So the more reps you get, the more comfortable you get with it. It’s one of those things, if it’s not feeling right, it’s a quick fix, and most of the time it’s feeling pretty normal — it’s like muscle memory.”
Watching Lowder feels like an exercise in eye muscle memory — we’ve seen this show before, over and over. When excellence becomes routine, that’s certainly a sign of greatness, and I’m making it a point to appreciate Lowder’s consistent excellence for what it is. Every Lowder performance is special, so let’s not take them for granted. Even if he’s going to do the exact same thing again next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.
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