Indiana pitcher Aaron Slegers stands 6'-10", which explains why people think he's Cody Zeller when they request an autograph.
OMAHA, Neb. (WDRB) – First, the fun stuff about Aaron Slegers before he pitches an elimination game for the Indiana University baseball team in the College World Series Wednesday night:
He's built like a foul pole, 6'-10", at 250 lbs. Teammates sometimes walk through the Indianapolis airport, tap strangers on the shoulder and whisper, "That's Cody Zeller."
Next thing you know, people are surrounding Slegers with cameras, and papers and pens with requests to sign something for their Aunt Margaret.
"I'm not much of a basketball player, and neither is Aaron," IU catcher Kyle Schwarber said. "I don't think coach (Tom) Crean needs to recruit us."
"I could hold my own, but I was no superstar," Slegers said. "I think IU basketball is doing all right without me."
That's OK. Zeller was a catcher, not a pitcher, until he gave up baseball as a high school freshman.
Now the puzzling stuff: Slegers was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year this season. He started 17 games, won nine, lost one.
But IU coach Tracy Smith did not use Slegers in the Hoosiers' opening victory over Louisville, or during the Hoosiers' loss to Mississippi State Monday. Indiana's No. 1 starter slipped to the No. 3 choice in Omaha. Smith waited until Tuesday to officially name Slegers his starter against Oregon State in a game Indiana must win.
There is a reason for that. In his last start, at Florida State in the Super Regional, Slegers allowed nine hits and two walks in 4 1/3 innings. He only finished four innings in the Hoosiers' NCAA opener against Valparaiso. Slegers has not won since May 23 against Minnesota
Finally, the critical stuff: Slegers must pitch like the guy the Minnesota Twins selected in the fifth round of the MLB Draft nearly two weeks ago. Throw strikes. Force ground balls. Bewilder hitters who are not accustomed to hitting against a guy who looks as if he's 7-4 when Slegers is working from the pitching mound.
"It's all about creating that unusual (pitching) plane," Schwarber said. "When he's standing out there pitching his best, to the hitter it really looks like he is throwing the ball straight downhill. It's a different look."
Size does not create the same advantages in baseball that it does in basketball, but baseball has always been Slegers' preferred sport. In fact, Slegers dropped basketball to concentrate on baseball after he spurted from 6-3 to 6-10 before his sophomore year at Notre Dame Prep High School in suburban Phoenix.
During his first two seasons at IU, only his friends and family knew he was on the team. Forearm and leg injuries limited him to one inning as a freshman and then seven more innings in 2012. Students confused him with Zeller more than with one of Smith's baseball players.
"In restaurants, people would ask for pictures and I would disappoint them," Slegers said. "I'd be out with teammates and they would chant a little bit. Heads snapped around. They'd go in crowded places and try to get me embarrassed."
The Zeller talk subsided this season. Slegers won his first five decisions, lost to Illinois (an NCAA Tournament team) and then won four more games. Slegers uses his size to create deception, not velocity. He relies on control not strikeouts, walking only 15 hitters in 97 innings.
If Slegers was not certain how urgently Indiana needs him to pitch the way he pitched in March and April, Smith had no hesitation reminding him after the Hoosiers practiced at Creighton Tuesday morning.
"I hate to say it, but the poor starts happened after all these accolades, after the draft, after all those things," Smith said. "It needs to be, ‘I'm going out and pitch to prove that I AM one of the best pitchers, if not the best pitcher in the Big Ten.'"
"If he doesn't have something to prove in this one, there's something wrong."
In other words, Indiana doesn't need Cody Zeller against Oregon State. The Hoosiers need Aaron Slegers.