Ryan Mullins thriving on a wicked curve ball

Lefty Jeremy Sowers is the unquestioned ace of the Vanderbilt pitching staff, but for those who haven't noticed, Saturday starter Ryan Mullins is turning in quite a year as well. Mullins talks about his bread-and-butter pitch, a wicked, beguiling curve ball.<p> <i>Vanderbilt hosts MTSU Wednesday at 6 pm at Hawkins Field.

Imagine this scene... you're nine years old, playing Little League baseball. As a left-handed batter you're facing another nine-year-old, a left-handed pitcher named Ryan. He's a few inches taller than most of the other kids you've hit against, but that doesn't faze you.

You step up and strike your most fearless hitting stance. As Ryan releases the ball, you see that it's headed right for your shoulders. You've been hit by pitches before, and you don't like the way that feels one bit.

Instinctively, you recoil backwards and out of the batter's box and hit the dirt. You wait to hear the ump call "Ball One!" Instead, the spinning ball abruptly veers away from you, back over the plate for a called strike.

You peer up helplessly, mystified. As you rise and dust yourself off, you hear a few titters from the other dugout.

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Lefty Jeremy Sowers is the unquestioned ace of the Vanderbilt pitching staff, but for those who haven't noticed, Saturday starter Ryan Mullins is turning in quite a year as well. In fact, those who love to fiddle with statistics could make a credible case that the sophomore from Father Ryan High School has had a more consistent 2004.

Mullins (6-2) currently leads the team in ERA (2.72, as opposed to Sowers' 3.14), and he's the only Vandy pitcher to throw two complete games. The Commodores have won nine of the 13 games Mullins has started. He's given up only 15 walks over almost 83 innings.

In eight of his 13 starts, Mullins has lasted at least seven innings, and he's pitched two complete games. That kind of consistency has allowed a grateful bullpen to avoid becoming over-extended.

Though his outing Saturday at LSU wasn't his best-- he was lifted in the sixth for Jeff Sues after LSU loaded the bases with one out-- he has provided a solid No. 2 starter for Head Coach Tim Corbin.

"Ryan has pitched progressively well all year," Corbin said recently. "We figure if he can keep the ball in play, we can take care of the ball defensively because that's our strength."

The giant lefthander from Nashville has two things working in his favor-- a physically imposing presence on the mound-- and a curve ball that has flummoxed batters since Mullins was hurling back in Little League.

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As a youth, Mullins had his final growth spurt rather late, but when it came, it arrived with a lurch. Ryan sprouted from 5-11 to almost 6-3 in one summer, between his ninth-and tenth-grade years.

The media guide lists him at 6-6; don't tell opponents, but he's really somewhere between 6-4 and 6-5, he says. Still, his height gives the lefthander a huge psychological advantage over most hitters.

His bread-and-butter is a wicked breaking ball that often seems to drop right off the table. Right-handed batters can do little besides foul it off or hit it on the ground... provided they get wood on it at all. To the left-handed batter, the ball appears to be headed right at you-- until it tails over the plate and leaves you flailing.

"I was about nine when I started throwing it," he said. "I could get batters out, because nobody at that age has ever seen a curve ball before. The older I got, the more I knew that was going to be my specialty.

"I had a coach back when I was nine, Steve Tucker," Mullins recalls. "Really, he figured out how to help me throw the curve ball, but he never really showed me how to hold it.

"I kind of figured that out myself, but he was the one who encouraged me and said, you can do it."

Today, few coaches encourage nine-year-olds to throw the curve ball because of the stress it puts on young arms. Many who have tried to throw it too young have developed sore arms. Things worked out nicely for Mullins, but not every kid should necessarily try this at home.

"It probably could hurt your arm," Mullins cautions. "It never bothered me that much, but I can see how it could. I was just fortunate that it didn't."

Large hands and long fingers play an important part in generating the rotation necessary for a great breaking ball, and Mullins was blessed with both. By his junior year, colleges began to notice the Father Ryan High School star that was practically unhittable. That year, he maintained a minuscule ERA of 1.14.

"I started to hear from colleges that I never in my life thought I'd have a chance to go to," he said. "Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech especially began asking me where I wanted to go to college. Vanderbilt was close to home, and just seemed to have everything I was looking for."

His senior season at Father Ryan was marred by an early-season injury, but it concluded in storybook fashion. Mullins came back to lead his team to a state championship, and was named the state tournament's MVP.

While Mullins' fastball is nowhere near upper-echelon in the SEC-- it ranges between 84 and 91 mph, he says-- he thrives by keeping hitters guessing and off-balance with the curve and the occasional changeup, and by keeping the ball low in the strike zone. In his complete-game masterpiece vs. Tennessee on May 8, Mullins forced Volunteer batters into a whopping total of 16 ground-ball outs.

*****

Last year, his freshman year, Mullins took on the role of No. 3 starter behind Sowers and the now-departed Robert Ransom. He got the start in Vandy's home opener that year, and from that first appearance, Corbin knew he had a potential weekend starter. Mullins finished third on the team last year behind Sowers and Ransom in innings pitched and strikeouts.

This season, he's become Mr. Saturday Afternoon, a role he has grown into nicely. Next year, with Sowers likely making the jump to the big leagues, Mullins appears poised to move into Sowers' Friday night spot on weekends.

"Pitching on Saturday is important. It's usually the game that sets us up for a rubber-match game on Sunday.

"Next year I'll be coming back with two years under my belt, and I think I'll be ready. It'll be exciting being able to pitch on Friday-- I think that will be the most fun next year."


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