PITTSBURGH — At the end of the 2018 season, things were going pretty well for Pitt pitcher Derek West.
He had closed the season on a huge hot streak, pitching six no-hit innings over two appearances in the ACC Tournament as Pitt upset top-seeded North Carolina and advanced to the semifinals.
After the season, he was selected in the 28th round of the 2018 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves, but decided to return to Pitt. He then spent his time over the summer drawing rave reviews in the Cape Cod League, and returned to Pitt to a new head coach — fellow Floridian Mike Bell — who just happened to be a former pitching coach.
Things were looking good for the big right-hander, and West started the season out of the bullpen, and was doing well in that role, with a 2.60 ERA on March 20.
But baseball has a funny way of keeping people humble. Given an opportunity to start in ACC play, things did not go as well. West allowed two runs in five innings against Virginia on March 24 and six runs in 3 2/3 innings on against Miami on March 29, as his ERA ballooned to 4.50.
To make the transition from reliever to starter in the middle of the season is not an easy task, but Bell has been instrumental in helping West develop a changeup, and he’s leaned on that pitch for better results in his last two starts.
West allowed two runs over six innings with eight strikeouts against Duke on April 6 and then struck out 12 over six innings while allowing three runs to Wake Forest on April 12.
“My last two outings, I’ve thrown the changeup more than I ever have here,” West said during practice on Thursday. “I’ve been able to keep guys of my fastball. It’s been able to make my fastball work that much harder. That’s got to go back with Coach Bell and (pitching) coach Jerry (Oakes). They’ve worked tremendously with me to be able to develop that pitch. Lots of bullpens and lots of side sessions just strictly working on that changeup.”
For a team that has had trouble getting length out of its starting pitching at times, West’s performance was just what the doctor ordered.
“Not having to throw so many fastballs, my arm is fresh,” West said. “It’s ready to go still in the sixth, seventh inning, compared to if I’m throwing 75 fastballs, my arm is a little tired there.”
The Panthers enter this weekend’s three-game home series with Notre Dame with an 11-25 record overall and a 3-15 mark in conference play, but West thinks that he won’t be the only pitcher that improves over time as Bell and pitching coach Jerry Oakes continue to mold what is a fairly young pitching staff.
“You look at everybody on the staff, compared to where we were at in the fall, guys made huge strides and that’s just by taking everything, all the knowledge that the coaches have to give us, and absorbing it,” West said.
If Pitt is going to have a repeat performance of it’s 2018 ACC Tournament run, the Panthers will have to start adding some wins in league play. Only the top 12 of the conference’s 14 teams are invited to the tournament, which will again be held in Durham, North Carolina this year. The Panthers are four games behind Boston College for the final spot with 12 conference games left to play. Three of the four teams Pitt has left to face have winning records against the rest of the ACC.
Pitt’s games against the Irish will start at 6 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. … The Panthers went 1-2 at Notre Dame last season. … RHP Christian Camacho, who hasn’t pitched since April 7, will be out indefinitely due to an injury to his non-throwing hand. … After a five-game, 0-for-22 streak, top Pitt hitter Connor Perry (Norwin) got back into the swing of things last week, going 8 for 17 with two home runs and eight RBIs in five games. He now has 10 home runs on the season