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22 May 2008

What a Relief It Is: JSU's Bullpen Features Rare Pair of Aces

Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

PADUCAH, Ky. — Jacksonville State brings a bullpen into this week's Ohio Valley Conference baseball tournament many teams around the country can only envy.

Most college coaches hope to develop two solid starters and find a reliable closer to nail things down. The Gamecocks have one dominant starter — especially in OVC play — and gotten solid enough efforts from their other weekend starters, particularly in their current 16-game winning streak.

But their ace in the hole — a pair of aces, really — is knowing if Ben Tootle tonight, Jordan Beistline Friday or any other starter runs into trouble, there are two right-handers in the pen coach Jim Case can summon to settle things down.

And the rest of the Gamecocks follow their lead.

Brian Booth and Alex Jones have been the closest thing to a sure thing for the OVC regular-season champions this season. They have had a direct hand in 24 of the Gamecocks' 36 wins and have worked in some part of 30 of them.

Booth, a senior, is 8-0 with two saves and a 2.54 earned run average. Jones, a junior, is 7-2 with eight saves and a 2.82 ERA. Four other non-starters are 6-0.

The 21-2 record among the Gamecocks' non-starters is the best in Division I baseball (Duke is next at 17-5).

"I don't know that I've ever had a bullpen quite like this one," Case said. "I've had some very good ones, but I don't know if I've ever had one quite like this."

The records of Booth and Jones are a testament not only to their ability to get opposing hitters out, but the confidence their own hitters feel no matter what the situation when the firemen enter the game.

The Gamecocks (36-19) have 24 come-from-behind wins this season — eight in their last at-bat and four of the walk-off variety — and Booth or Jones has been the biggest benefactor. They have gotten credit for the win seven times in the current streak.

"It's just an amazing feeling in our dugout when those guys go in the game what's fixin' to happen," Case said. "This game being so mental, a lot of times I think even offensively it picks us up when they go in ... It's a great feeling in college baseball to have not only one, but two, guys who you can give the ball to and everybody expects them to win."

Case considers both of them closers, although by definition that title belongs to Jones.

But don't call Booth a set-up man. He typically has come on in the middle to late innings — just as the JSU bats are starting to heat up —but he hasn't always given way to Jones. There have been times Case has let him in to finish the job.

He has gone three innings or more in three of his last four appearances and seven times since mid-April.

"There's been times we've left Brian in there to finish games," Case said. "Early in the year we were replacing him, but as good as he goes at times, there's no reason to take him out."

Jones, meanwhile, is the final word; he has never entered before Booth this year. He didn't give up an earned run in his first eight appearances (10 2/3 innings) and has given up only one earned runs in his last seven (14 2/3 innings).

"Alex is the closer; there's no doubt about that," Booth said. "Alex is the closer. There's no doubt in my mind he's the best one in the league and if the game's on the line he's coming in there and everybody on the team is confident with that.

"My job is to get the ball to Alex with us the lead."

In the big leagues, a manager would never consider bringing in his closer in a non-save situation, but Case has asked for his most effective relievers even when the Gamecocks were behind because he knows how his hitters respond.

Interestingly, both relievers have a delivery that comes from a little south of traditional, and that has been a big reason for their resiliency.

Jones is a submariner and, although he doesn't sense it, may have brought his delivery up a few degrees this year. It's a style he was introduced to as a freshman in high school by current Samford coach Casey Dunn, and he's found no reason to change.

"I'd never been a pitcher before and they said you're going to be a pitcher because you're tall," Jones recalled. "I'd throw overhand and didn't have much control. It wasn't that good. My elbow hurt. They said why don't you try this and it worked out."

Booth said he never imagined himself pitching this way in a game, but discovered success coming from the side after several years of arm trouble and setbacks.

He experimented with dropping down at the end of last year, then went back over the top at the start of this season and it didn't feel good. He dropped back down two weeks before the season, still unsure it was the right thing to do but the only way he figured he was going to get playing time, and rolled the dice.

They've come up 7s all year.

"It's been a great year; I couldn't have dreamed of a better senior year," he said. "After everything I've gone through the past two or three years, it's just made it all worth it and it's just been a great senior year."

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