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Player profiles: Saluki pitcher Michael Baird making a case for ace

Junior+pitcher+Michael+Baird+poses+for+a+portrait+Thursday%2C+Dec.+8%2C+2016%2C+in+Carbondale.+%28Ryan+Michalesko+%7C+%40photosbylesko%29
Junior pitcher Michael Baird poses for a portrait Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Junior pitcher Michael Baird poses for a portrait Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Junior pitcher Michael Baird poses for a portrait Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

By Denton "Gio" Giovenco

Born in Arizona and raised in Colorado, junior pitcher Michael Baird traveled east of the Mississippi to bring his pitching talent to southern Illinois.

A self-proclaimed “smiley and talkative guy,” Baird said family and faith are the most important facets of his everyday life.

“I have two amazing parents, one younger brother and one older sister,” the young pitcher said. “I am a religious guy. I was raised Christian and that plays a big influence in my life.”

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Baird’s father also played baseball — the only sport he played in high school — and found ways to hand down his love of the national pastime to his son early on. One of his first favorite toys was a purple wiffle ball bat his father gave him.

A chance meeting at the Recreation Center where the family exercised led to Baird finding his drive to join T-ball. In day care at the center, Baird became best friends with Cody Huson, whose father, Jeff, is an MLB journeyman who played with seven teams throughout his 12-year professional career.

“When Cody started playing T-ball I realized I wanted to hang out with my friend some more and play some ball too,” Baird said.

Baird attended Legend High School in Parker, Colorado, where he was the youngest player on the varsity team after making the squad as a sophomore.

The Saluki pitcher said he was a late-bloomer, hitting his growth-spurt later than other players on the team. When he did, he quickly became the tallest player on the team. But this added new challenges for the young ballplayer.

“Having this height also meant I had some knee problems,” he said. “I wasn’t as athletic as everyone else due to it, and it became a drag.”

Baird credits his teammate in high school, Tyler Honahan, with getting him through this time and pointing him down the right path. Honahan, being 6 foot 2 inches himself, understood the challenges Baird was facing and suggested a visit to Coach Clint Zavaras at Slammers Baseball.

Slammers is where Baird learned to use his height to his advantage off the mound, and found his calling in baseball.

“I loved baseball since I was a kid, but really as a pitcher once I started to get into working primarily using my height,” he said.

The young pitcher began getting serious looks from colleges and MLB scouts heading into his senior year of high school, but an arm injury cut his final season at Legend High School short.

“Right when I was starting to put some weight on, I started to get up to 88-89 mph and my arm wasn’t used to it was the problem,” Baird said.

The injury — a micro-tear in one of his tendons in the rotator cuff — proved to not be serious. Baird went through two months of physical therapy, and quickly recovered from the set-back.

This was good news for SIU, who recruited Baird in the fall of his senior year of high school — before his injury — and signed him to a four-year commitment beginning with the 2015 season.

Baird said he always intended to attend college, regardless of whether or not he was drafted out of high school.

“I wasn’t ready at all to pursue a professional career,” he said. “I just knew I really wanted to go to SIU. I knew I needed some time to mature with those extra few years in college.”

The Saluki hurler said his goal his first year at SIU was to come in and play as a freshman. He accomplished this by becoming a pitcher who was regularly called into games out of the bullpen for the Salukis during the 2015 season. But not every outing was great for Baird.

“It was a tough transition my freshman year,” he said. “I had a few rough outings in a row and I am thinking I’m probably the last guy that they’re going to want out there. Then my name gets called again, and I am thinking, ‘Why the heck do they keep putting me out there?'”

Baird credits Head Coach Ken Henderson and pitching Coach P.J. Finigan with helping him work through his early struggles.

“Coach Fin and Coach Henderson saw what I could be as a pitcher and believed in me before I did,” the Saluki pitcher said. “One of the big takeaways from my freshman year was that you have to be coachable. I also learned that I don’t like losing. … I really got fed up with being a loser.”

The Saluki pitcher said Coach Finigan stressed the need to work over the summer following his 2015 season to get stronger physically and mentally. This helped Baird realize a good work ethic and faith in his abilities is what he needed to mature as an athlete.

“If I do everything I can from start-to-start, it’s in the Lord’s hands after that,” Baird said. “Whatever happens, happens. It’s not because I didn’t work hard and give it my best.”

Baird has since become a stalwart of SIU’s starting rotation. After being moved from the bullpen to the rotation following 2015, he has compiled a 13-4 record over 22 starts, with a 1.71 ERA and 0.95 WHIP to go along with 92 strikeouts and 33 walks.

These career numbers led to the Saluki hurler to be named 2017’s MVC Preseason Pitcher of the Year by Baseball America and D1 Baseball. He understands the implications of this honor, and hopes to follow through on the prediction.

“It is both a monkey-on-the-back and it drives me to succeed,” Baird said. “If I’m not MVC Pitcher of the Year and have the best ERA at the end of the year, then it’s a failure of a season. I know that’s unrealistic, but I do hold myself to that high expectation.”

Saluki pitcher Michael Baird throws from the mound Saturday, March 4, 2017, during a game against Western Illinois University Leathernecks in Itchy Jones Stadium. The Salukis beat the Leathernecks 12-2. (Bill Lukitsch | @lukitsbill)

Many of these same outlets have tagged the Saluki pitcher as one of the top pro prospects in the Midwest. With the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft coming soon, Baird said he knows he may be put to a choice between continuing his college career or entering the pro ranks.

“Coming from an athlete with the draft coming up, baseball is basically what I’m focusing on right now,” said the speech communication major. “But I know the degree is, if anything, more important than everything else. Baseball is going to end for everyone at some point, so you have to be able to do something else in life.”

Yet Baird said the choice is 100 percent his, and he is keeping his options open in case he is drafted this year.

“The chance to play baseball at the next level is a surreal feeling,” he said. “Especially when I think that it may be an option for me.”

The young pitcher knows whatever he chooses – be it continuing college or entering the pros — his family is behind him.

“I could probably go up to them today and say, ‘Mom and dad, I’m quitting baseball and dropping out of college to be an artist’ and they would support me,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to have family that supports you no matter what.”

While the draft and all the honors are “icing on the cake” for Baird, for the time being he is primarily focused on the 2017 season for the Salukis.

“My ultimate goal is to go out there once a week and give my team a chance to win,” he said. “There’s always the next game to focus on.”

Baird said his future is the product of his upbringing and his time at SIU.

“I have lived the greatest childhood a child could live,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with opportunities. I have to give 100 percent credit to SIU as a program and to the coaching staff here for for everything. They have given me this opportunity and I was really blessed to come here.”

Even if this season proves to be the Saluki pitcher’s last at SIU, it has been one of his most promising so far.

“This is one of the best teams I have ever played on,” Baird said. “We are beyond talented, and are a way better team than what our record this season shows. The best is yet to come.”

Sports writer Denton “Gio” Giovenco can be reached at dgiovenco@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @DentonGiovenco.

To stay up to date with all your SIU sports news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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