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TMC baseball's A.J. Work: Homeward Bound

TMC’s Work will pitch this week in his home state of Idaho

Posted: May 22, 2013 8:55 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2013 8:55 p.m.

The Master's College pitcher A.J. Work returns to his home state of Idaho this week as the ace of a Mustangs team about to compete in the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho.

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When A.J. Work last left Idaho as a high school baseball player, he was just a wide-eyed kid trying to figure out how he was going to compete with the “big boys.”

This week, as a senior at The Master’s College, Work will return to his home state to play baseball with a far different outlook.

Work and his team are traveling to Lewiston, Idaho to compete in the NAIA World Series, which begins on Friday when the TMC Mustangs face Northwood University of Texas in the opening round. It’s TMC’s second trip to the World Series all-time and the first since 2000.

As has been the case all season, Work will come in as the staff’s ace.

It’s a title he earned through performance and consistency during his first three years at TMC, during which he transformed himself into a dominant, reliable left-handed pitcher.

“Coming in as a freshman (at TMC), I was like, ‘Man, I’m just a kid. These guys are grown men. There’s no way I can face these guys and have success,’” Work says.

Originally recruited out of Timberline High School in Boise, Idaho as a talented hitter and pitcher, Work himself admitted to a lack of confidence upon arrival in college.

That season, he was a middle relief guy who was seldom used out of the bullpen. He pitched just 15 1/3 innings and posted a 10.57 ERA.

Those around him knew he had the skill to be good from the start. It was only a matter of time.

“Ever since his freshman year, I remember catching him and he was dominant,” says TMC senior catcher Chris Talley. “He had good stuff and he was getting better every day.”

From there, it was instant improvement.

Work became a regular starter as a sophomore, winning seven games, followed by 11 as a junior and 12 so far this year, which ranks fifth in the nation among all NAIA Division I pitchers.

Fellow TMC pitcher Daniel Sheaffer got to see his teammate gain confidence firsthand when the two of them spent the summer after freshman year in Alaska playing in a summer league.

That was the summer where Sheaffer saw the biggest change in Work’s game.

“Mentally, he’s one of the toughest guys out there on the mound,” Sheaffer says. “If makes a bad pitch, he comes right back and gets a guy. In big situations, he’s big. He comes through.”

With a pitcher like Work, TMC head coach Monte Brooks says you have to see it to believe it.

At first glance, he doesn’t fit the typical mold of an overpowering lefty. Where baseball scouts often look for pitchers well above 6 feet tall, Work stands 5 feet, 11 inches with a medium build and his fastball maxes out at 85-86 mph.

The senior has to make up for it with craftiness.

“Nobody looks at A.J. and says, ‘Wow, that’s an incredible athlete,’” Brooks says. “But when you see his performance, people fall in love with him. People who know the game fall in love with him.”

Instead of trying to throw it by people with a blinding fastball, Work mixes his pitches, his speeds and locates the ball where he needs to on both sides of the plate.

When he came to college, he threw a fastball, curveball and splitter. Since then, he’s developed a circle change-up and a slider.

He’s confident throwing all five pitches.

“He’s one of the smartest pitchers I’ve ever played with in the sense that he knows what he’s trying to do,” says TMC first baseman Spencer Downs. “He knows his stuff really well and he knows how to get hitters out.”

In addition to his 12-4 record, which includes three complete games, Work has a 2.49 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 115 2/3 innings pitched. this year.

That gives him a school-record 30 career wins and a 2.92 career ERA.

Work was named the Golden State Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year following TMC’s conference championship.

The Mustangs then went on to host, and eventually win, an NAIA Baseball Championship Opening Round tournament two weeks ago to send them to the World Series.

TMC comes into Friday with a 43-15 record, which already eclipsed the school of 37 wins in a season.

The team will have a chance to claim its first NAIA national title this week, and it will happen just a six-hour drive from where Work grew up.

It’s not far from where he was first discovered by TMC.

A former assistant TMC coach under Brooks, Bear Morton, had a nephew who played on Work’s highs school team.

Upon seeing Work play Morton felt the urge to call Brooks, who is also a longtime friend and a native of a nearby town, Meridian, Idaho.

That was Work’s sophomore year of high school, and Brooks has had his eye on Work ever since.

“It was really weird how everything kind of worked out,” Work says.

And in another weird twist, his final college games will be played in the Pacific Northwest where his baseball career began.

dagnew@signalscv.com

661-287-5530

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