Pitcher Perfect

Waubonsie Valley (Ill.) senior <b>Michael Bowden</b> is one of the nation's top pitching prospects because he accepts nothing less than perfection.

This article appears in the April 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.

Michael Bowden is his own worst critic. Mercilessly so. The difference between one of his no-hit gems as seen from the bleachers and the same outing as he sees it is like the difference between an infield pop-up and a towering home run.

"I'm rarely happy with my performance," says the Waubonsie Valley senior right-handed pitcher, who has committed to national power Arizona State but is also a likely early-round pick in June's Major League Baseball Draft. "I'm a perfectionist. Last year, I threw a no-hitter in which I walked three guys. I literally didn't care about the no-hitter. I was not at all happy with the walks."

Of course, success is relative when you're talking about a perfectionist of Bowden's caliber. That trio of walks represented three of only 11 he issued all of last year. And when he surrendered a three-run homer in last year's postseason, his ERA more than tripled. To 0.49.

Bowden (pronounced BO-den) is so demanding of himself — so exacting, so ruthless in self-evaluation — that opposing batters might actually seem friendly by comparison. Then again, there's a reason the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder is rated the nation's No. 27 prep baseball prospect in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. He didn't ascend to that rank by cutting himself any slack.

Still, holding yourself to such superhuman standards can be counterproductive. After all, Hall of Famers give up plenty of three-run bombs. Doesn't that kind of perfectionism create a mountain of pressure?

"I don't feel pressure at all," says Bowden, 18, a Baseball America preseason second team All-American. "I don't care what anyone else says about me. I set tougher standards for myself than anyone else can set. That ought to be good enough. It's not like I go to pieces if I get squeezed with one batter and then give up a blooper. There's nothing you can do about a flare. You just have to tell yourself the next three guys don't stand a chance."

Michael Bowden may be a perfectionist, but he's got the soul of a gunslinger.

"The thing about Mike is, he gets tougher when runners are on base," says Warriors fifth-year head coach Dan Fezzuoglio, 36. "He bears down even more. He performs under pressure like no one I've ever seen. Mike's unique style is: Here's my best pitch — if you hit it, I'll tip my cap to you. It's literally: Here it comes, here it is, I'm going to challenge you and compete with you, and if you beat me, you beat me."

His day-to-day behavior confirms his wildly competitive nature. When the SchoolSports photographer showed up for Bowden's cover shoot, talk turned to the awesome basketball-spinning display that recent SchoolSports cover girl Lindsay Schrader of Bartlett put on during her own cover shoot.

Bowden, who averaged 15 points per game as a senior forward on the Waubonsie Valley boys' hoop team this winter, didn't waste a second before offering, "You want to see me do that? I can do that."

Bowden uses every available means to stoke his competitive fire as well. Whether it's the superstition behind his bizarre, ritualistic routine of carefully ordered pre-game stretching and warm-ups or the fact that he still gets fired up about the time he beat his older sister in arm wrestling.

"Growing up with two older sisters, well, they really had their way with me until about fifth grade," recalls Bowden. "It used to drive me crazy my sister could beat me at arm wrestling. I couldn't live with myself. When I finally beat her, man, I'll never forget that day."

That right arm has come a long way since besting Melissa Bowden, now a sophomore outfielder and shortstop at the University of St. Francis in Joliet. For proof of that, look no further than Bowden's fastball, which tops out at 95 mph on the radar gun.

To go with his 0.49 ERA, Bowden posted a 10-2 record and recorded 124 strikeouts in 71 innings as a junior. He rates his slider as his out pitch, but he also features both a two- and four-seam fastball, a curve and a changeup.

Nonetheless, he refuses to believe the hype.

"I try not to listen to any of the buzz going on about me being drafted or anything about how good I am," says Bowden, who proved he can also handle himself at the plate by hitting .384 with seven home runs, nine doubles and 27 RBI last season. "I've never had a pitching lesson. I'm self-taught. If something doesn't work, I switch it up. I imagine I have a lot to learn."

Specifically, Bowden is working toward "a more devastating changeup" and also acknowledges a need to "tweak my mechanics" to succeed at the next level, whether that's college or the minor leagues.

But boasting exceptional command of his fastball and a knack for firing first-pitch strikes, Bowden is more in need of a touchup than an overhaul.

"He's constantly analyzing his delivery and the movement on his pitches," says Fezzuoglio, who led Waubonsie Valley (27-10) to a regional championship before losing to Naperville North in the Class AA sectional semifinals last season. "He's very much programmed and driven to grow as a pitcher. He's one of those rare kids who's at school working out during the offseason and at school at 6 a.m. in the weight room during the season."

Perhaps most impressive, Bowden possesses the courage to support his convictions. For example, during a postseason game last spring, Bowden ran two batters in a row to 3-0 counts before battling back to induce a pop-up and a strikeout, respectively, to end the inning. Now, keep in mind, three-ball counts come along for Bowden about as often as World Series wins for the Red Sox.

So between innings, a baffled and tense assistant coach, Denny Short, approached Bowden in the dugout and said, "Mike, I can't believe you went to three balls on two guys in a row."

The words were barely out of Short's mouth before Bowden snapped, "Did I walk 'em?" Bowden's point being, basically, why are we having this conversation?

After all, Michael Bowden is used to being his own worst critic.

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