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Left with the right tools
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in Maryland pitcher Brett Cecil's career didn't occur in high school or in college or during a Cape Cod League stint last summer.
Instead, it came when the pitcher was 3, maybe 4 years old -- Cecil's aunt bought him a left-hander's baseball glove.
Cecil is a natural right-hander, but what young boy would let that be an impediment to using a new glove? So he learned how to throw lefty even as he learned to do everything else -- write, play hockey, golf -- right-handed.
For years, it was simply a quirk. But with a chance to crack the first round of tomorrow's baseball draft after two seasons as the Terrapins' closer, Cecil looks back on that fortuitous gift a bit differently.
"My life saver, basically," Cecil said.
Of course, Cecil himself has just as much to do with his ascension to a valued commodity. The junior developed a balanced repertoire at Maryland after a stellar high school career at DeMatha, thrived in a late-inning bullpen role and could be either a starter or a reliever as a pro.
Along the way, he maintained a fastball typically between 89 and 92 mph but touched as high as 96 during his time in the Cape.
Such a performance is solid for a right-hander. For a southpaw -- that most treasured of entities in baseball -- it is dynamite.
"Without a doubt, he's going to be a fast mover through a system," an American League scout said. "I have no doubt Brett's a big leaguer. He's left-handed, and that helps. Some bullpens in the major leagues don't have a left-hander right now. They're at a premium to get, so he's going to help a team in the major leagues real soon."
Cecil's prospects grew considerably with a strong 2006, when he set a Maryland record with 13 saves. He vastly improved a slider with the aid of new pitching coach Jim Farr, who taught Cecil a grip that helped push it from 77 mph to 88.
He also transformed an admittedly soft body, 230 pounds when he entered college. Always an admirer of David Wells' pitching style, Cecil gave up on imitating the veteran's physique when he slimmed down to 208 pounds to avoid surgery for a pain-killing shot for a protruding disc in his lower back, then added on muscle to work back to 225 pounds.
It permitted even greater progress for a player who went undrafted out of high school, as well as a chance to rein in an emotional streak.
"It's been interesting the last couple years to see him maturing as a person and a baseball player," said Joe Palumbo, a teammate at Maryland and DeMatha who has known Cecil since they were 12. "It's been really amazing to see how great a player he's become. He was always good. He was decent player, but there were always guys that were better than him. Our junior and senior year he kind of took off, and ever since then he's been shooting up from there."
This spring brought both added attention and frustration, even though his pitches remained steady. His raw numbers were solid (62 strikeouts in 621/3 innings, a 3.32 ERA and eight saves), but he also blew four saves.
Still, Maryland coach Terry Rupp kept Cecil in the closer's role, determined to shorten games to seven innings or less with a consistent pitcher in the back of the bullpen. And Cecil responded with a strong finish, including two starts in May.
"Every player goes through that where they're not as sharp as they usually are," Rupp said. "A lot of it had to do with a lot of pressure that got put on Brett. His name got out there after he had a great summer up in the Cape. Without a doubt, other teams were shooting for him and wanted to prove something against him."
The late-season starts provided a glimpse at a possibility in Cecil's future. College closers have become valuable commodities in recent years -- notably Oakland's Huston Street and Washington's Chad Cordero -- but Cecil could take several paths.
He heard some teams might toss him into a minor league rotation to build up some innings before working in an instructional league and then re-evaluating in the fall. Cecil's first start -- a 71/3-inning outing May 6 against Florida State when he still reached the low 90s late in the game -- displayed a durability that will be valuable at the pro level.
Then again, he could be fast-tracked as a reliever, with a longer-term role as a setup man a possibility.
"Of course I want to do the latter and get up as quick as possible," Cecil said. "But I'm here to do what I love to do, and whatever role they put me in is the one I'm fine with."
The American League scout believes Cecil's command has improved throughout his career. Cecil added a split-finger fastball this spring to complement his slider and curve, further polishing an array of pitches that could work in either the rotation or the bullpen.
That uncertainty only adds subtext to the wait for Cecil, who could be the first Maryland player since John McCurdy (26th overall in 2002) and first Maryland pitcher since Eric Milton (20th overall in 1996) selected in the first round.
"It's definitely going to be nerve-wracking," Cecil said. "Hopefully I get the call real early [tomorrow]. I'm not going to sleep the night before, and then the draft isn't until 2 p.m. I'm going to be sitting around all day not knowing what to do with myself."
About the Author
Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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