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Before Kyle Porter stepped onto the field at TD Ameritrade Park as a true freshman in 2011, the ace of the California staff – then-junior Erik Johnson -- told him one thing: "Don't look up."
"He told me, ‘Don't you dare look up until you're done,'" said Porter, who only did look up as he walked off the mound at the end of the sixth inning, up 6-1 against Texas A&M in the College World Series. "I'd never seen that many people at a college baseball game."
Porter earned the Bears' first victory in Omaha since 1988 that June 21, putting the capper on what would be a Freshman All-American Season.in which he went 6-0 with a 1.89 ERA.
Porter has come a long way around since being a part of the freshman class that had its program nearly taken away back in the fall of 2010. On Saturday, Porter was chosen by the Miami Marlins in the 31st round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft – the second of two Bears lefties (Michael Theofanopoulos being the first, taken by the Minnesota Twins in the 30th round with the 890th pick overall) to be picked up on Saturday -- but it's been far from a straight line from Freshman All-American to pro ballplayer for the Cal lefty.
As a freshman in 2011, Porter had only started two games all season – both, coincidentally, at Santa Clara – before being tapped to start a late-night elimination game against Baylor at the Houston Regional at Reckling Park.
He wasn't even expecting to start that fateful night, a late start necessitated by fateful lightning storms prolonged Cal's earlier game against No. 1-seed Rice, and shocked the Bears back to life.
Several weekends prior, Porter had begun to feel strange sensations in his left shoulder, after pitching twice against UCLA. It felt "weird," he said, but "not hurt."
When he warmed up upon arrival in Houston, Porter's first thought was: "Damn, this doesn't feel good."
Pitching coach Dan Hubbs told Porter to take things easy over the next two days, as Cal battled back from an opening loss to Baylor to beat Alcorn State and Rice.
"I probably would have been used in relief beforehand, so it was just by coincidence that I hadn't been used yet," said Porter. "They were looking at it, and we were in lightning delays and there was a long, spread-out day, and it was almost 10 o'clock by the time we played, when I pitched. We were in the locker room, and Hubby's like, ‘Can you go?' I'm like, ‘Yeah, I think so.' He said, ‘So, what you're going to do, I'm going to have you go out and warm up and start playing catch. If it doesn't feel right, we're going to start somebody else.' I started playing catch, and lo and behold, it felt fine. The adrenaline took over. I wasn't even thinking about the moment that it was in. I was thinking about whether or not I could even go or not, which, I think, worked out in my favor."
Porter doesn't remember much about the next 6.2 innings, but, by the time he looked up, he'd struck out nine and allowed just three hits and two walks
"I was zoned in on trying to get myself physically right and being able to throw that I didn't think about, ‘Oh, crap, we're in an elimination game. We're going home if I don't win this,' or whatever," Porter said. "It worked out in my favor, big time."
After that win in Omaha, though, Porter's shoulder went downhill. His winged scapula didn't sit right, and, exacerbated by his admittedly poor posture, the musculature got so bad that he couldn't throw properly.
"I was using whatever I could to get any kind of velo on the ball, because the arm just wasn't working," Porter said.
After a particularly poor outing in 2012 against Texas, where he went just 1.1 innings, allowing four hits and one walk to the nine hitters he faced, Porter was all but shut down for the rest of the season until his shoulder could be ironed out.
Porter finished 2012 a shadow of his former self, barely touching even 85 mph with his fastball, with all of his breaking pitches flat and devoid of life. Porter went just 2-1 with a 5.75 ERA in 10 appearances, and just 20.1 innings in 2012. 2013 showed improvement, and by the end of the season, Porter showed signs of his old form, and down the stretch, he worked 13.0 innings, allowing six hits and six walks with eight strikeouts in six outings.
Finally, in 2014, Porter emerged as one of the most dependable pitchers on the staff once again, going 6-5 with a 3.01 ERA in 15 starts, going a career-high 92.2 innings to lead the pitching staff, with a team-best 72 strikeouts to just 22 walks, finishing off his collegiate career with a gem against No. 15 Oregon on the road.
"It was very tough, not only physically, but mentally, to go from basically, the top of my baseball career and being an All-American to pitching sparingly in the bullpen," Porter said. "It was hard to grasp onto, but I feel like that made me stronger, as a baseball player, to hit a rough patch, work hard and go through it."
He was rewarded for his steadfastness on Saturday, as the area scout for the Marlins – the man in charge of scouting the Bay – is former Bears pitching coach John "Cheese" Hughes, who called Porter on Saturday to pass along the good news. Hughes – who served as pitching coach under Bob Milano -- was instrumental in the push to save Cal Baseball back in 2011, laying his part in wrangling donors across generations of alums off the field as Porter and his compatriots played their parts on it.
"I was in contact with John Hughes, and about half hour before, he called and said he was hoping to get me, and then, I saw it pop up on the computer screen, and then they took me," Porter said. "I think it's awesome to be drafted by him. Honestly, of any of the scouts, I'd rather be drafted by him, because he's a friend of the program, he's always around, I feel like he actually knows me as a player and a person."
With two lost years right behind him, Porter said he didn't have any expectations. He just wanted to keep pitching. Now, he'll get to do it for the same organization that picked former Bears great Mark Canha, who head coach David Esquer has said was the genesis of the atmosphere of hard-nosed selflessness that pushed Cal to Omaha back in 2011, even if Canha had been drafted the summer prior.
"I really enjoy playing," Porter said, "so I want to keep playing until someone takes it from me."
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