Coming into the season, Josh Tinnon had high expectations for his pitching career. There was only one problem: The lanky right-hander did not exactly know where those ambitions would play out.
After two years as a late-inning reliever for the University of Northern Colorado, the junior expected he would continue to make his living at the end of the game. But Tinnon could not have been more off-base in his anticipation of becoming the Bears’ closer.
As destiny would have it, Tinnon was bound to help his team to one of its best recent seasons at the opposite end of the game as one of his Bears’ most productive starters.
“Really, I was not necessarily expecting what happened, but it’s been great,” he said. “It was just a situation where I got to start a few games and just worked myself into the rotation.”
Tinnon has quickly become the beast of the Bears’ staff, leading a number of the team’s and his league’s statistics. The former Holy Family High School ace currently owns a team-best 4-2 record and the third-lowest earned run average in the Great West Conference at 3.38. He also is one of his team’s top strike-out artists with 34 Ks on the season.
The right-hander’s finding himself the anchor of UNC pitching staff was in part a function of the junior’s innate ability. Tinnon brought in a strong arm he used with deadly efficiency in high school. But like so many college success stories, there was a element of serendipity in the junior finding himself a key cog in the Bears’ pitching machine.
“He started for us the last month of summer and showed he could go deep into the pitch count,” UNC pitching coach R.D. Spiehs said. “Then we lost a few starters at the beginning of the season, giving him a chance to get on the mound. He’s just grown from there.”
Tinnon had to take his lumps in his debut this season, surrendering five runs at Nebraska. But he proved to be a quick study in what it took to excel in the starting rotation, helping his team construct one of its weightiest wins of the season in his next outing. Tinnon put the Bears en route to a 3-0 victory March 13 at Kansas State, laying the groundwork for the shutout with 72/3 innings of rock-solid pitching. In his time on the mound, he gave up only four hits while striking out five batters.
“It was pretty special,” Spiehs said. “The day before we gave up 11 runs to those guys. We hand Josh the ball the next day and he takes a no-hitter into the sixth or seventh.”
The win, the second of Tinnon’s career, no doubt buoyed Tinnon’s confidence. Next to helping his high school capture the 2010 state championship, the win in Manhattan, Kan., was one of the most memorable experiences of the junior’s career.
“It was my best game so far,” he said. “I remember going out in the first and getting that first out. I just went on a roll from there.”
Putting together solid season has required a share of work on Tinnon’s part. While he still fires a smoking fastball, he does not live and die by the heat. Instead, he has developed a potent menu of pitches, serving up split-fingers, sinkers and sliders anywhere in the count. This, in part, has come about due to his willingness to tweak the mechanics.
“Midway through his sophomore year we had him take his arm angle down a few notches,” Spiehs said. “It made his sinker crisper and his slider move a bit more. It also made him more consistent in his delivery and hitting his spots in the zone.”
Retooling the physical aspect of his game, however, was the easy part about becoming a NCAA Division-I starter. For Tinnon, the challenge was building the mentality of an ace. That was forged through a trial by fire his first two years in college. “My freshman and sophomore years, I really learned to leave my last pitch behind me,” he said. “It was just the ability to move on, to become more mentally tough.”
Tinnon’s career trajectory matching his team’s this season has been an incredible experience and being back in the starting role for the first time since high school is a natural fit.
“I do feel like I’m back where I belong,” he said. “It feels comfortable.”
The junior, however, knows his work is not done by a long shot. The Bears are attempting to knock down a Great West title before they jump ship for the WAC next season and the league has plenty of teams aiming to surge alongside second-place UNC. But the right-hander is not breaking a sweat about the road he and his team have in front of them. In fact, his game plan has not changed one bit.
“I really don’t have any personal goals for myself for the remainder of the season, other than just putting my team in position to win baseball games,” he said.
Follow Elwood on Twitter @ElwoodKShelton.