Summers learns to love mound
UC Irvine finds ace in hole in former outfielder turn pitching star
It’s hard to believe that until about year ago, UC Irvine ace Matt Summers didn’t really want to pitch.
Now, there is nothing Summers wants more than to take the mound against No. 1 Virginia in the Charlottesville Super Regional on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET.
Summers always thought of himself as an outfielder that happened to have a pretty good arm. As a high school player in Scottsdale, Ariz., Summers was a full-time centerfielder, but coaches and scouts couldn’t help but trying to entice him into a career on the mound.
“I didn’t like to pitch actually,” Summers said. “I had some scouts wanting me to pitch because I threw hard, but I didn’t like it and that’s essentially why I didn’t sign out of high school. I was drafted as a pitcher, and I was that stubborn that I didn’t want to pitch.”
Out of high school, Summers was drafted in the 43rd round of the 2008 MLB First-Year Players Draft by the New York Yankees. Summers still wanted to make a go at being an outfielder, so he passed up his first chance at professional ball and headed to UC Irvine, where the coaches promised he could try both.
Summers struggled with multi-tasking in college. While limited due to a knee injury as a freshman, Summers made six appearances, compiling a 7.71 ERA in 7.0 innings. He saw a lot more action as a sophomore, appearing in 21 games and starting four, but was 2-2 with an 8.51 ERA.
“He didn’t understand what goes along with pitching and all the little things and work you have to do,” UC Irvine pitching coach Jason Dietrich said. “He was just thinking about how hard you throw the ball, and not trying to place it.”
“I wouldn’t have very much success because I didn’t really know what I was doing it,” Summers said. “That’s why I didn’t like it, and that’s why I wanted to stay in the outfield where I was comfortable and I felt my skills were better.”
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After last season, Summers headed to the Cape Cod League, where he played for the Falmouth Commodores. Finally, after a successful first outing of the summer, Summers decided a change of focus was the right thing for his future.
“I had a really good outing and I was throwing really hard,” Summers said. “My coach came up to me, and told me, ‘you’re a pitcher … you know that, right?’ I kind of finally realized it. That’s when we decided to rest the bat, and just focus on pitching during the summer.”
At the Cape, Summers worked on locating his fastball and developed a change-up, but most of all, he spent time on the mental aspect of pitching.
“I’ve picked a lot people’s brains, and I am trying to retain as much information about it as I possibly can,” Summers said.
“The more he is out there, the more he understands what pitching entails … holding runners, fielding the position,” Dietrich said. “It’s clicked for him. He’s a competitor and put forth all of his energy into wanting to figure out becoming a pitcher. He knows wanting to throw the ball hard doesn’t mean anything.”
When Summers returned to campus in the fall, the Anteaters’ coaching staff was happy with the more polished version of their pitcher. They slated him to be the team’s closer because of a good arm and a velocity that can hit 96 mph.
But as Summers gained more confidence on the mound, he believed he could do more.
“I had a really good fall, and everything started coming together,” Summers said. “I told to the coaches that I wanted to start. I would tell them I wanted to be the Friday guy.”
After losing their entire weekend starting rotation, they were looking for guys that could step into those roles.
“We thought we would give him a chance to extend himself and teach him about starting and routine and all that goes into it,” Dietrich said. “He threw a lot of bullpen sessions with me and our undergraduate assistant (former UCI pitcher Brett Smith) that helps out with pitching. We worked on teaching him the mental side of the game.”
“They started stretching me out during the winter, and I was getting up to five innings, six innings and everything was still going really well,” Summers said. “I was still proving myself on the mound that I could be the Friday night guy, and on opening day, they gave me the shot.”
Summers has proven all season it was the right choice. He compiled an 11-2 mark and 1.72 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 16 starts, earning Big West Pitcher of the Year honors. Summers capped off the conference season with back-to-back complete-game shutouts, including a no-hitter against Long Beach State on May 27.
In the Los Angeles Regional, he picked up his ninth consecutive victory as the third-seeded Anteaters upended No. 2 seed Fresno State, 12-6. He fanned six batters in six innings, and giving up three runs – one earned – in the outing.
“His confidence has shot through the roof,” Dietrich said. “He trusts the guys behind him, and he trusts his ability. He’s experienced the little nuances of the game now, and has learned how to control them to the best of his capabilities mentally.”
On Tuesday, Summers was selected in the fourth round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins – once again as a pitcher.
Summers will open the Charlottesville Super Regional, going head-to-head with Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen (11-3, 1.57 ERA, 148 K), the second overall pick in the draft by the Seattle Mariners.
“We might have a little chip on our shoulders because a lot of people didn’t expect we’d be that good this year,” Summers said. “They expected teams like UCLA and Fullerton to outlast us. We have to face the No. 1 team in the nation now and I’m excited … we can only prove ourselves even more. It’s really exciting knowing this is possible … anything is possible.”