Confidence is a must-have in college baseball. Even more so is it mandatory for a starting pitcher in a league as competitive top-to-bottom as the SEC to have it.
Tony Locey has always considered himself a confident pitcher. It’s easy to see why — the Columbus, Georgia, native has consistently been one of the Bulldogs’ most reliable go-to pitchers since arriving on campus prior to the 2017 season. But there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance.
That’s where maturity enters the picture.
“My first impression was, ‘I don’t know how long this guy’s going to make it here,’” said Bulldogs coach Scott Stricklin, his normally-serious demeanor replaced by laughter. “It was a different atmosphere than he was used to being in. ... He’s learned a lot. He’s grown up a lot.”
Locey attended Hardaway High School in Columbus for two years before transferring to Houston County, where he became friends with Jake Fromm. He played on a Perfect Game team with fellow pitcher Will Proctor and competed against Austin Biggar while the latter attended Parkview High School, so he already knew several of his teammates when he arrived in Athens.
The adjustment Locey faced, then, wasn’t the task of adjusting to college life. He’d always played on travel teams, he said, so he was used to being away from home.
The adjustment came on the diamond, against one of the top baseball conferences in the U.S.
Locey posted a 2-4 record and a 6.38 ERA in 2017, his freshman season. His first career start came against No. 6 LSU, in Baton Rouge. A learning experience, as Locey called it. He remembers it “like it was yesterday.”
“I throw three good innings, then probably throw 15 straight balls in the fourth,” Locey said. “Keegan McGovern hit a home run, we’re up 1-0. Antoine Duplatis hits the first pitch, bomb, and it’s 1-1 in the top of the fourth inning. And it went downhill from there.”
Since that freshman season, though, Locey has slowly become one of the Bulldogs’ more consistent pitchers. And he’s done it in back-to-back seasons, as a part of two talented starting rotations.
Locey held opponents to a .220 batting average in 2018, amidst Georgia’s NCAA Regional run. He posted a 7-2 record, a 4.28 ERA and was credited with a win in that Regional, an 18-5 trouncing of Campbell — all as a sophomore.
Now, Locey enters Year 3 in the SEC with more experience, ever-increasing confidence and stronger command on the mound.
He worked on adding a breaking ball — a pitch that has a sideways or downward motion (sometimes both) as it approaches the batter — over this past offseason (breaking balls can be anything from a curveball to a slider, and involve a pitcher snapping or “breaking” his wrist to give the ball spin and movement).
Locey and his coach both agree, though, that it’s his maturity that’s made the biggest difference in his play. Two seasons of college baseball will do that.
And he’s off to a flying start in 2019. So much so that Stricklin and his staff want Locey as their Sunday guy going forward. He was the Bulldogs’ Game 2 pitcher last season.
Some context: The Sunday starter is arguably the most important in the rotation. That’s the pitcher who starts the third of a three-game series, when teams are going for either a series sweep or series win. Or trying to salvage a series by taking the final game.
That’s a lot of pressure. And while there’s been a significant lack of Sunday games this season (rain forced several early-season Saturday doubleheaders), Locey has shown, at least so far, that it’s not too much pressure.
Of course, it’s still early on. SEC play doesn’t start for another week. But if Locey’s confidence is anything to go by, he’s not too worried.
“It’s the best conference for a reason,” Locey said. “Everybody’s going to throw dudes at you, and every hitter is really good, and everybody’s got a chance to be drafted at this level.
“They always say the SEC is equivalent to AA (the second-highest level of Minor League Baseball). Everybody knows if you’re in AA, you’re really good, so there it is.”