Friday, May 07, 2010

SPORTS>>Playing the futures game

Leader sports editor

It’s not that Searcy junior pitcher Dillon Howard can already throw a fastball clocked at 93 mph.

Although that helps.

It’s not that the right-handed Howard has command of three other pitches, a 6-4, 210-pound build and a nose for the game of baseball.

Although those things help too.

The clue to what has Howard drawing clusters of Major League scouts to Lions games can be found in the way he dealt with a recent loss.

After walking two in a three-run inning, hitting four batters total and being charged with his fourth loss of the year in a 6A-East Conference game at Jacksonville, Howard was asked for an interview.

“Sure man,” he said, and went on to dissect his game, where he went wrong and what he intended to do about it.

“I’ve got to tip my hat to Jacksonville,” said Howard (6-4) after the 5-4 loss at Dupree Park. “They’re a great team. They swung the bats well. It wasn’t my day pitching but it comes with the job.”

And that’s what makes Howard a pitcher and not just a thrower. The highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low and he knows there is always another game.

In Howard’s case, given the number of pro scouts and college recruiters on his trail, there should be plenty of other games.

“I think he’s going to have a lot of options,” Searcy coach Clay McCammon said. “We’re hopeful that if he continues to improve and can even build off what he’s done this year, yeah there’s a chance he could get drafted pretty high and have the opportunity to go that route.

“But he’s going to have numerous opportunities at the collegiate level.”

Have the firing squads of radar guns aimed at Howard through the chain link been a distraction? In Howard’s case, of course not.

“It’s not something I dwell on,” he said. “It has happened. It just comes with the job once again. I don’t dwell on it. It’s a good feeling but it doesn’t affect what I do on a daily basis.”

What he does do on a daily basis is bedevil unsuspecting hitters with his four-pitch arsenal that includes the fastball, a changeup, curve and cut fastball.

“He’s got four good pitches that, when he locates them, people have trouble hitting them,” McCammon said.

Even when he’s not having his best day, as at Jacksonville on Monday, Howard can still get a guy with a pickoff move, as he
did when he erased a Red Devils runner, or with his grasp of what’s going on around him.

When a Red Devils hitter popped a bunt foul, it was Howard who reminded the umpire the foul came on a two-strike count and the hitter was out.

Yet Howard, like the scouts stalking him, knows a baseball player is always a work in progress. Unlike the NFL or NBA drafts, when players are taken because they look like they can immediately contribute, baseball players are drafted for their potential.
Howard is still trying to fulfill his.

“I’ve got a lot to learn, obviously,” said Howard, who admitted he is still seeking that one pitch he can rely on for outs. “I’ve got to learn about pitching and just what goes on, what preparation and stuff like that, how to throw to hitters. Just knowing how to play the game and the right way to play the game.”

When he has accomplished all he can in high school and his progression continues, Howard will then have to decide between the pros or the colleges. But like a good pitcher, he’s not rushing anything.

“I couldn’t give a straight answer on that honestly,” Howard said. “I’ve got a lot of days ahead of me before I have to make that decision. We’ll see. I think I’ll make the right decision, whichever one it is.”

McCammon said the most scouts he has counted at a Searcy game so far have been either five or six, but many more are expected to follow next season.

In the meantime, Howard has other, perhaps more important priorities for a guy his age. He spends time with his girlfriend or fishing for bass and crappie on the 20-plus acres his grandparents own.

“It’s just kind of an easy life, you know? Being a teenager, I guess,” he said.