LOUISVILLE, Ky. --- Nick Burdi throws with so much velocity that the scoreboard at Louisville's Jim Patterson Stadium can't keep up anymore.
"All of a sudden you see like '03' show up on the scoreboard," said Cardinals left fielder Jeff Gardner Monday at the team's media day. "Wow, this is the real deal."
‘03' because the space on the scoreboard that shows the pitcher's speed only has room for two digits. Burdi throws three digits.
"I don't know if it's 102 or 103. I think I saw 102 on the gun," said head coach Dan McDonnell. "It's exciting to talk about the velocity. What even amazes the coaches is when you're throwing a 92-93 mile per hour slider, when you throw an 88-90 mile per hour change-up. That's kind of when it hits home with everybody, because you're like, 'Wow!'"
Burdi says it's the change-up that has really emerged for him this offseason, going as far as to say it's turned into one of his best pitches, making an already dangerous two pitch repertoire even more lethal by adding a third. Adding another off-speed option though wasn't the only emphasis entering his junior year.
"Trying to redefine by mechanics, make them smoother, not so violent, I guess, on the arm," said Burdi. "That's the biggest thing for me right now. Keep working that off-speed. Command the strike zone better."
An improved Burdi will be a scary thought for Louisville's opponents in the late innings of the 2014 season. He's coming off a sophomore season in which his 0.76 ERA would've been good enough for 1st in the NCAA, if he had pitched enough innings. Add that to 62 strikeouts in 35 ⅔ innings pitched, along with 16 saves (11th in NCAA), and it's clear to see he's one of the most unhittable pitchers in college baseball.
His teammates even say it's evolved into psychological warfare against opposing batters before they even step foot in the batter's box.
"Geez, from last year, from the time he stepped out of the bullpen, his walk-out song came on, dudes were freaking out," said Gardner. "It's definitely pretty intimidating whenever you're going up against somebody of that caliber."
Nick Burdi's walk-out song out of the bullpen? 100 Black Coffins by Rick Ross.
"Kind of reading their body language," said Burdi, when asked how he can tell if opposing batters are intimidated. "After that first pitch, I can kind of tell with the swing they put on a fastball or slider, depending on what they do with that first swing. That's kind of when I know I have that batter out."
Burdi's ridiculous velocity paired with the nasty slider and improved change-up are reasons why the right-hander has been tabbed a 1st team preseason All-American by Baseball America, college baseball's equivalent to Associated Press accolades in college football and basketball.
It's also why many are projecting him as a 1st round pick in the Major League Baseball Draft come June (some have even projected as high as the #1 overall pick). But for Burdi, he says the only #1 he's focused on right now is the #1 that comes with being national champions.
"There's a ton of talent out there this year. Being the number one overall pick is one of the biggest honors in baseball," said Burdi. "But when that time comes, that's something me and my family will sit down and talk about. Sitting here with this group of guys, possibly being the last year I ever get to put a Cardinal uniform on, it's all about dog-piling in Omaha...and getting that ring with a #1 on it."
Louisville is ranked 20th in Baseball America's preseason poll, coming off the school's second College World Series last season.
Burdi's development as a flame-thrower started in middle school, already cracking 80 miles per hour with his fastball in 8th grade. By the start of high school, it was about 86. It steadily climbed from 92 mph to 98 mph from his sophomore to senior year at Downers Grove South High School in Illinois. After his freshman year at Louisville, while he was playing in the Cape Cod Summer League, Burdi hit the 100 mph milestone for the first time.
McDonnell says Burdi is the best pro prospect he's ever had in one of his programs. The only other pitcher he mentioned when asked that was Pittsburgh Pirates and former UCLA star pitcher Gerrit Cole. McDonnell was with Cole on USA baseball. Cole was the 1st overall pick by the Pirates in the 2011 MLB Draft and last year helped pitch the Pirates to their first playoff berth since 1992.
But Burdi isn't the first closer McDonnell has had success coaching. Former Cards Trystan Magnuson (MLB debut with the Oakland A's in 2011) and BJ Rosenberg (pitched in the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen last two seasons) are just two recent examples, but neither were nearly as highly-touted as Burdi is this season.
"We wouldn't talk about Nick Burdi as much if he didn't have the 16, 17 saves, if he didn't have the low ERA," said McDonnell. "If he didn't put up the numbers, we wouldn't talk about the velocity."
But he did, and we are. McDonnell said six of his juniors last year signed six-figure contracts after being drafted.
We may be talking about a seven or even eight-figure contract with Nick Burdi after Louisville's 2014 season.