When he walked off the mound in the fifth inning against Wichita State April 1, junior left-hander Nathan Dorris was on his way out of the weekend rotation.
“I wasn’t believing in myself and my abilities. I wasn’t going out there knowing I could get people out,” Dorris said. “I wasn’t focusing on my mechanics, and that caused me to leave pitches up in the zone.”
He landed in the mid-week starting pitcher’s role, and coach Ken Henderson said that makes him and SIU’s three weekend starters – Cody Forsythe, Cameron Maldonado, and Sam Coonrod – extremely valuable as the Salukis prepare for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament that starts May 22.
“When you go to the conference tournament, you’re not going to win it with three starters,” Henderson said. “We’ve got four quality starters. And that’s important; that’s huge … I’ve got to think we’ve got four (starters) as good as anybody.”
Dorris began the season as the starting pitcher on Sundays and won his first four starts with a 2.95 ERA and 20 strikeouts. His first rough outing was against Illinois March 18, when he gave up six earned runs on nine hits in four and one-third innings. After two more starts where Dorris couldn’t get out of the fifth inning, he was bumped out of the weekend rotation in favor of freshman right-hander Sam Coonrod.
Coonrod and Dorris are both in their first years at SIU, but Dorris’ path to Carbondale had a few more stops along the way. Dorris is a native of Marion and said former coach Dan Callahan was the first college coach to contact him while he was in middle school.
SIU offered Dorris a scholarship during his junior year of high school but later rescinded the offer once bigger programs and pro scouts started to look at the left-hander. Dorris was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 45th round of the 2009 MLB draft, but he decided to sign a letter of intent to play at Vanderbilt.
Dorris said he decided to go to Vanderbilt because he wanted to work with Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson, who was named Baseball America’s Assistant Coach of the Year in 2010. Johnson was also SIU’s pitching coach from 1995 to 1998.
During Dorris’ first semester at Vanderbilt, he battled through a few injuries, and Dorris said Vanderbilt’s coaches wanted him to redshirt when the season started the following semester. Dorris said he felt he could play despite the injuries, so he decided to come back home and transfer to Rend Lake College, where he pitched for two seasons before he suited up for SIU.
Even though he visited teams such as Illinois, Kentucky and Western Kentucky in high school, Dorris said he liked his life back home, and the move to SIU was the only one he considered after junior college.
“SIU told me they wanted me, and it was pretty much a done deal,” Dorris said.
Coonrod also had pro scouts look at him while he was in high school in Carrollton, but the only college programs to contact him were SIU and several junior colleges. Coonrod said he thought he was going to be used strictly out of the bullpen in his first season, because he still has a lot to work on.
“I hardly ever pitch seven innings; I throw too many balls. I have problems throwing strikes at times,” Coonrod said. “I’ve never really had to listen to anybody on mechanics until this year. It’s all new to me. I’ve never really needed (help) until now, and I definitely need it now.”
Henderson said Coonrod showed more consistency than Dorris, and he decided to put Coonrod in the weekend rotation April 8 against Evansville. Coonrod started two mid-week games before that, but he received no decisions in both.
Pitching coach P.J. Finigan said in Coonrod’s mid-week start against Northern Illinois March 17, his fastball topped out at 97 miles per hour, although it is usually within the 92 to 94 mph range.
Finigan said coaches have been working on Coonrod’s on his mechanics so he can get the most velocity on his fastball while still throwing what Finigan said was “decent off-speed stuff.” The coaches have also worked on Coonrod’s location, because back in high school, he could throw his fastball anywhere and get batters out, Finigan said.
“(College) is a totally different level. It seems like every time I make a mistake right now, something bad happens,” Coonrod said. “In high school, that never happened. I could make mistakes all day and nothing would happen.”
Coonrod said he needs to work on his longevity in games, because he’s gone past the fifth inning in two of his six starts.
Henderson said that was a product of Coonrod working into deep counts with opposing hitters.
SIU’s Friday and Saturday starters — junior left-hander Cody Forsythe and senior right-hander Cameron Maldonado — don’t have the same problem going deep into ballgames. Forsythe averages a little more than six and two-thirds innings per start, while Maldonado averages slightly less than five and two-thirds innings per start.
Both Forsythe and Maldonado have started in the weekend rotation for the past two seasons. Henderson said put Forsythe was out in the Friday slot because he has great makeup and command of his pitches, which is important when going against the opponents’ toughest starter every week.
“I feel like I’ve really found my rhythm as of late. It’s just been flowing really well,” Forsythe said.
Maldonado’s season has been so-so statistically, with a 6-1 record despite a 5.71 ERA. Henderson said his ERA is inflated because of two bad outings against Stetson March 3 (four innings, eight earned runs) and Dallas Baptist April 13 (two innings, eight earned runs).
“It’s really hard to get over a bad performance instead of just looking forward to the next opportunity,” Maldonado said. “I just got to take one pitch at a time and one game at a time instead of taking the season as a whole.”
Maldonado originally played for Wichita State, but he said he struggled with injuries in his two seasons there, and the Shockers pulled his scholarship. He said their coaches would help him find another place to finish his college career, but it was Maldonado’s wife, Kiersten, who played a big role in helping him land at SIU.
SIU initially recruited Maldonado out of high school, but he decided to go to Wichita State. There he met Kiersten, whose father played with Callahan when they were in college. After Maldonado left Wichita State in 2009, he played at Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kan., for a year to be close to Kiersten while she finished her undergraduate degree.
Maldonado came into contact with Callahan through Kiersten’s father while he was at junior college, and eventually committed to SIU for the 2011 season. Kiersten was still at Wichita State when Maldonado went to Carbondale, so they had to keep a long distance relationship until Kiersten graduated in spring 2011.
“It was hard, but I knew she was the one, so I had to make it work out,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado married Kiersten shortly after she graduated, and she now works at a chiropractor’s office in Marion.
Unfortunately for Maldonado, a chiropractor won’t be able to help with his latest problem, as he hurt his shoulder in the fifth inning of Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Illinois State. Henderson said he doesn’t know the extent of the injury yet, but Dorris will likely start in his place if Maldonado can’t pitch.
SIU has one mid-week game left this season, and sophomore right-hander Peter Slavonic is the only other pitcher for SIU to start a game this season.