Jack of all trades
Pope morphs from closer to stellar starter for Yellow Jackets
It's Mark Pope’s time to shine, and this Georgia Tech right-hander is getting pretty comfortable in the spotlight.
A native of Marietta, Ga., Pope paid his dues on the Yellow Jackets’ pitching staff during the past two seasons and is now reaping the benefits of being Georgia Tech’s Friday starter.
Pope was successful his first two seasons in different roles for the Yellow Jackets. As a freshman, Pope served as the Yellow Jackets’ closer, compiling a 5-1 record with eight saves. Last season, Pope moved into a mid-week starting role and flourished with an 8-1 record and 3.78 ERA.
But it looks like this is Pope’s year. As Georgia Tech’s ace, he is 5-0 with a 0.23 ERA in five starts. He has struck out 32 batters and walked just four, and is the only pitcher in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a complete game. Pope has two and both were shutouts. Entering this weekend at Miami, Pope has put together a string of 34 innings without giving up an earned run.
“I feel like the first game sets the tone for the whole weekend, so if we can do well, hopefully we’ll carry it over and win the series,” Pope said.
Pope’s strategy is simple – throw strikes, and don’t give the other team any free passes.
“Ever since I started playing travel summer ball, I’ve always been told, ‘You can’t defend a walk,’ ” Pope said. “If you just pound the strike zone and put it in there, chances are they will get themselves out. It’s something I’ve always had in the back of my mind – throw a lot of strikes and good things will happen. I definitely try to work on that.”
“He’s not going to wow with a bunch of stuff, but he can really pitch,” head coach Danny Hall said. “He throws four, and sometimes five, pitches for strikes and he has confidence to throw them in any count. He’s a great competitor and has a great work ethic. He throws a lot of strikes and doesn’t walk a lot of guys. He enjoys being out there having that ball in his hand.”
While Pope has an array of pitches that he uses, it is his sinker that is his go-to pitch.
“I’ve definitely worked my way into being a sinker-baller,” Pope said. “I’ve thrown a lot of two-seams and that seems to really work out for me. It gets a lot of ground balls and keeps my pitch count down. It’s definitely my best pitch by a long shot.”
Opponents are hitting just .165 against Pope, and he has allowed just one extra base hit – a double – this season. He has been selected the ACC Pitcher of the Week in each of the last two weeks, and garnered Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Week for his performance in a 1-0 shutout against Maryland on March 11.
“Every year he has gotten better,” Hall said. “When he was a closer, he pretty much used just his fastball and breaking ball. When you hear midweek starter, you might think he’s not as good as the other guys, but we play Georgia three times every year and our mid-week games are against tough teams that have been to the NCAA Tournament. That really prepared him to be a Friday guy. He’s really gotten much more confident in all of his pitches and really done a good job in developing his changeup.”
While his role as a closer allowed him to see all of the best hitters from around the ACC, Pope says starting against Georgia last year is what really helped him adjust to his duties this season.
“I was definitely in the spotlight and got a lot of attention because of that,” Pope said. “That was a big, pressure-filled moment that helped me get ready to be the Friday night guy this season. It wasn’t anything new for because I’ve already pitched in big games. It’s all added up and it’s gone really well for me this year. I hope it keeps going.”
Georgia Tech is riding a 13-game winning streak as it travels to Miami for a three-game ACC series beginning March 25. The Hurricanes are enjoying a nine-game winning streak of their own after starting the season with a disappointing 5-8 record. Both teams are 6-0 in ACC action entering the weekend.
“We know Miami is a team that can always hit, and is really good at picking up opponents’ signs – that’s something we have to be careful of,” Pope said. “This is definitely a big series and they always put up a fight. If we come out and play well to begin with and win this series, it will be really big for us.”