Harding lands a winner in Shurtleff

From pitching a one-hitter to open the 2012 Babe Ruth 13-year-old World Series in Kitsap County, Wash., or whipping up an 18-strikeout no-hitter in the championship game of the 2014 Junior American Legion State Tournament in North Little Rock; from a three-hitter over Tyler Lee High School in Waco, Texas in March of 2015 and a two-hit shutout for the Bryant Hornets at Russellville to seven shutout innings in 104-degree weather in an elimination game at the MidSouth Senior American Legion Regional Tournament against Tupelo, Miss., in Conway — all Alex Shurtleff does is win.

Calmly.

In fact, the next time he suffers a loss in high school or Legion baseball at Bryant will be the first time he’s done so. In three years, the right-hander has a combined record of 18-0 with a composite earned run average of 1.48 over 127.1 innings in which he’s fanned 117.

On Friday, Harding University got a steal when they signed Shurtleff, a senior at Bryant High School, to a letter of intent to continue his education and baseball career at the Searcy college.

“The best compliment you can pay to a pitcher is that he is the same guy everyday and that is Alex,” stated Bryant athletic director Mike Lee, who also serves as the pitching coach for the Black Sox Legion team. “When you run him out there, you know what you’re going to get every single time. It’s been a joy watching him from the bleachers and watching him from the dugout, watching him work and operate. It’s a product of his parents, his older brother. It’s a product of the high school coaches. It’s a product of the summer coaches.

“Alex is another one of those blue-collar guys that Coach (Kirk) Bock and his staff, and Darren Hurt and his staff facilitate,” he added, referring to the Hornets’ coach and the Black Sox manager. “And we have an end product at this level, a very polished, competitive strike-throwing machine in Alex Shurtleff.”

“I have never seen him panic,” Bock said. “It’s not that he hasn’t had bad games like anybody else but his bad game, he may give up a hit or two in a crucial situation where other people are giving up a run or two in crucial situations. He doesn’t compound mistakes.

“What Mike said about Alex was perfect,” he added. “He’s a guy that has persevered and you know exactly what you’re going to get every time he walks out. In the three years that I’ve known him, I have never seen any ups or downs. He’s steady. Most pitchers you don’t see that. I hadn’t seen it. Hopefully, he can give us one more year of that.”

Indeed, Shurtleff, the son of Bud and Genny Shurtleff, along with Thursday’s signees with the University of Arkansas Zach Jackson and Evan Lee, still have that one more year with the Hornets and Sox.

“I went to a camp at UALR and Harding happened to see me,” he said. “They got my information from Coach Bock and they contacted me. I visited there twice, once with the coach and once on my own. It’s a small campus but they have really nice facilities. I like it. They have a physical therapy program and that’s what I’m looking to get into so it worked out well.”

Known for a good program for pitchers, Harding may have their 2017 ace.

“They’re losing seven pitchers the year I graduate so I’m going to have to be ready to throw as soon as I get there,” Shurtleff related.

“He’s not blessed with the 90-mile-an-hour fastball but I think that’s part of what drives him, finding ways to get people out,” Hurt said. “He’s pretty dad-gum good at finding ways to do that. That kid’s not going to throw you a fastball when you expect a fastball. It’s just not going to happen. And he’s not going to throw you a slider when you think it’s a no-brainer slider situation. He out-thinks a lot of them, which is what gets him through a lot of stuff.”

“I’ve got a fastball anywhere from 84 to 87,” Shurtleff acknowledged. “I have a high 70’s slider which I love to throw because I can control that whenever I want to. And I’ve got a change-up that just drops out of the zone. I didn’t start throwing a change-up until my freshman year and it worked out.”

The slider was devastating in that 2014 Junior Legion State title game against a Sheridan team that went on to provide the core of the Yellowjackets’ 2015 Class 6A State championship high school team. Shurtleff came within a walk of a perfect game. Of the 21 outs in the seven-inning contest, 18 of them were strikeouts.

“I didn’t even know I had a no-hitter until the last inning when someone mentioned it to me, which is bad luck but — I felt great,” he recalled. “I threw maybe 75 sliders that game, maybe three fastballs. I had a bunch of people supporting me and I felt good about it. Sheridan never figured out how to hit it so I just kept throwing it.”

“Once we started to develop those pitches is kind of when our staff took off,” Bock mentioned. “But some people have a feel for it and some people don’t. Evan doesn’t really. Evan’s is that breaking ball. But it seems like our righties really have a great feel for that pitch. I think that’s what separated (Shurtleff) from the pack.

“We’re able to use him in different ways because we trust what we’re getting every time,” he continued. “We can start him and we know we’re going to get four or five quality (innings) out of him. We can bring him in in the middle with men on and it’s not like he’s going to walk out there and strike people out but he’s going to get people out. And we can also close with him. His pitch ability is so good. We know what we’re getting.”

Shurtleff played on a showcase team until he was 13 when he joined the Bryant Athletic Association program. That, he said, was when things started to fall in place.

“As soon as I got in Bryant,” he emphasized, “because I was surrounded by a bunch of people that actually knew how to play the game of baseball and I was surrounded by coaches that knew how to coach it. Tournament teams, they’re just a bunch of talent out there. You go out and play. We actually have coaches here that will tell you what to do, fix your mechanics and all that.”

“My relationship with Alex goes all the way back to 13 years old and watching him then when he joined this (current junior/senior) group for the first time,” Hurt recalled. “My best memories of him are when he was 13, 14, pitching in the Babe Ruth World Series. That’s the first time I saw what kind of competitor he was. Every big game, you’d give him the ball and he goes out there — he’s got a lot of that ‘Panda’ (Jackson) in him. He wants the ball and he doesn’t want anybody to have to come out there and bail him out. He wants to finish. He’s a heck of a competitor.

“He was MVP of the World Series then,” Hurt continued. “At 14, they lost in the semifinals of the World Series. When he was added to that group, it kind of elevated them to where they were able to make those runs with him on the mound. Then Legion, the last couple of years, he’s been awesome.

“His outing at the Regional Tournament (against Tupelo) was probably his best of the year or at least it was right up there with when he pitched against Canada over in Memphis,” he added, referring to a showcase tournament in which the Sox played Team Canada’s Ontario Blue Jays. “We had him on a short pitch count over in Memphis or else he probably would’ve finished that off. He had them shut out through four innings.”

The Black Sox had a 1-0 lead when Shurtleff gave way to the bullpen. Ontario rallied for a 4-1 win.

“He’s always so consistent,” Hurt said. “All the outings are good but that outing in the Regional tournament was really good.”

The Sox manager also reflected on how Shurtleff has matured over the years.

“I think it’s more so in between starts from what I’ve seen,” he explained. “When he was younger, I think it was harder for him to handle the time in between. Now he’s really got a routine. He does his work. He gets his ‘pens in. He gets his ‘flats’ in. He’s not a kid that you’ve got to stay on to tell him ‘Today, you’ve got to do this.’ He’s going to do the work.”

Reflecting on when he started to think about one day pitching in college, Shurtleff recalled, “My freshman year I didn’t really do much. I threw a lot of junior varsity. My sophomore year, I started getting some varsity innings. I felt good that year and I’ve thought about the future ever since then.”

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