As a freshman, Georgia pitcher Tony Locey would take the mound, throw the baseball and hope it would find the strike zone. His 6.38 ERA gave proof that the method isn’t the most effective, despite having a fastball that averages 96 mph.
The Houston County product knew it, too.
“I would just hope to get lucky and throw it somewhere around the zone blindly,” Locey said.
So, he knew it was time to change the mentality, and the first opportunity came in the Cape Cod League in which Locey recorded a 3.00 ERA in 48 innings with the Brewster Whitecaps in Massachusetts. It allowed the young pitcher to play among the college baseball’s elite talent.
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Entering the summer stint, Locey needed to gain a greater sense of maturity if the then-18-year-old wanted to have success against SEC competition. He made the trip northeast with his teammate Michael Curry.
“He had the chance to see how these kids went about their business,” Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin said. “He learned from it and had some success which gave him confidence. It allowed him to grow up a little bit and now he’s more professional about things.”
As he returned to Athens, Stricklin and newly-hired pitching coach Sean Kenny saw a significant change in his work ethic. Locey added to his amount of preparation by using his Monday off-day to watch film, lift weights, exercise or work on a specific pitch by testing different grips on the rep mound, while being sure to rest his arm.
Locey took the experience into preseason workouts and a three-week competition for the Sunday starting role with senior Chase Adkins. There were intense battles among the power pitchers, and the senior came out on top by being “just a little bit better,” according to his coach. Adkins proved it was the right move Sunday by throwing six shutout innings in a 4-3 series-clinching win over Georgia Southern.
“I wanted both of us to battle our butts off,” Adkins said. “Shoot, I mean I got the spot, but he could’ve gotten it just as good as I could’ve. You’ll hear it from everyone on this team, it’s all about maturity for him.”
Kenny told Locey that his role would change after making some weekend starts as a freshman and that his best fit lies in the long-relief role during weekend series. Locey will make some starts when Georgia has stretches of games in four or five consecutive days and will continue to see action in mid-week staff games including Wednesday against Kennesaw State, in which he will be one of many pitchers to follow behind Tim Elliott.
Stricklin told Locey to be prepared and his head coach saw immediate buy-in from Baseball America's No. 42 sophomore draft prospect. In his second-year debut, Locey showed it as he threw two shutout innings in a Friday victory. He didn’t follow-up as planned with three earned runs without an out recorded Sunday, but the promise for improvement was shown.
“It’s still the same mindset, regardless,” Locey said. “I still have to stay down in the zone, throw strikes and get every pitch over. It’s been working out for us, and I’m embracing every role I have.”
When Locey was a “thrower” for the Bulldogs, he took the mound with a two-pitch arsenal: the stifling fastball and a changeup. But with the aspiration of being productive, a third pitch was needed and he temporarily tested out a curveball. But no traction was there. So, Kenny and Locey collaborated to work on a slider within the past week, and it was first put on display against the Eagles.
In his shutout performance, Locey found himself in a bases-loaded situation with one out and a 3-2 count. Freshman catcher Mason Meadows called for the newly-implemented pitch and it worked for a strikeout to eventually get out of a jam. It brought along a jolt of confidence and Stricklin sees it as a key in his development.
“The slider has been working great for me,” Locey said. “I’m going to keep commanding it, and it works better than any off-speed pitch I’ve been working with. If I can dot the fastball and get movement on the slider, it changes the entire game.”
Due to Locey’s arsenal, he could fit in a multitude of roles, including the ninth inning when the Bulldogs are looking to finish out a win. Georgia has senior Blake Cairnes slotted in the closer’s role for now, but it was certainly a thought to give the sophomore an opportunity.
Cairnes finished with a 4.64 ERA a season ago and Georgia looks as if it will stick to its plan for a while. Locey continues to develop as a multi-inning pitcher as a 91-to-92 mph two-seam fastball has continued to progress.
“He sort of has that closer’s mentality,” Stricklin said. “That could be a role we look at and we’ve talked to him about it a little bit, but we don’t know. Right now, we’re going to keep giving him the ball.”
Added Locey: “Everybody wants to be a starter, but I will give my all in that role if it fits the team best. I’ll try to be the best closer in the country.”
Regardless of his role, Locey jogs in from the bullpen with one significant learning curve behind him. He can now pitch.
“I know how to get hitters out,” Locey said. “It’s about getting dialed in, hitting your spot and throwing consecutive pitches for strikes. I can get guys out more consistently rather than just throwing.”