“I’m tired of sucking.”
That was the sentiment Cody Deason came to express when he met with his coaches in mid-March. The Arizona Wildcats right-hander had an unsightly 14.40 ERA at the time, mainly a product of a disastrous initial outing in which he surrendered six earned runs in two-thirds of an inning.
Deason had pitched four times since then but hadn’t regained the coaches’ trust; he didn’t pitch at all in the just-concluded series at UCLA. At that point, the sophomore’s season simply wasn’t going the way anyone had envisioned after a promising freshman campaign.
So Deason, UA coach Jay Johnson and pitching coach Dave Lawn talked it out. They outlined a practice plan for the rest of the season. Deason expressed confidence in his ability to be a productive member of the pitching staff. The coaches assured him he had all the necessary tools. It was up to Deason to see it through.
Johnson came away from that meeting so impressed with Deason’s attitude that the coach started him the next day against New Mexico State. Deason pitched 3º shutout innings to earn his first victory of the season. He has been a key contributor ever since.
“That was one of those big steps forward I had to take in my life and in my baseball career,” said Deason, who has lowered his ERA to 3.15. “That was the confidence boost I needed. I don’t think I’ve ever looked back.”
Coming off his best outing of the year — 6⅓ scoreless innings in a 6-0 win at College of Charleston on Sunday — Deason likely will start in the finale of No. 17 Arizona’s three-game series at Arizona State that begins Thursday. He could be used as a reliever in the opener. He has earned a prominent role.
“A lot of guys, they don’t pitch good and they play the blame game,” Lawn said. “It was good to see a guy literally pitch his way back into the mix.”
Deason was firmly in the mix last season. The 6-foot-3-inch, 212-pound product of Ojai, California, pitched three times in the postseason, including twice in the College World Series finals. He allowed just one run in four innings.
Deason followed that up with a successful summer stint with the Mat-Su Miners of the Alaska Baseball League. He entered the fall as a leading candidate to help replace three departed right-handers who anchored both ends of the 2016 staff: Nathan Bannister, Bobby Dalbec and Kevin Ginkel.
But progression, especially in baseball, is seldom linear. Only in the rarest cases do players enjoy a steady ascent. Setbacks are commonplace in a sport in which failure is a statistical inevitability.
They can be just as beneficial in the long run as quality starts or saves.
Deason considers his rough start to 2017 “maybe one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” It forced him, he says, to “really dig deep and find myself as a pitcher again.”
The stuff always has been there. Deason’s fastball can reach the mid-90s. His curveball is the best on the team. And his changeup is developing into a usable third pitch.
But the makeup component is just as important. It takes time to develop the composure needed to navigate the turbulence most pitchers will encounter in most games.
“The game is so hard,” Johnson said. “It’s so different than football or basketball. There’s so much failure. It’s very experiential. You can only get better and learn by playing.
“He was relatively green. He didn’t have a whole lot of high school playing experience. You just have to kind of get through it. I’m really proud of him, because his season did not get off to a good start at all.”
Deason still sometimes loses his cool. But he’s working to minimize those instances and mitigate the angst.
Deason has developed a routine before starts. He’ll walk to the outfield wall four or five times, alone, to calm himself down and psych himself up. During games he has become more focused, spending less time pacing around the infield between pitches.
Which isn’t to say Deason doesn’t suffer the occasional relapse. In the third inning of his May 7 start vs. Washington, Deason allowed a three-run homer. He then started pitching out of the stretch — even though no one was on base — and was late to cover on a grounder to first. Johnson replaced him to start the fourth.
But one shaky inning couldn’t erase the résumé Deason had built over the previous six weeks. So he got the start a week later in the rubber match at College of Charleston.
Deason allowed at least one base runner in each of his six full innings — but didn’t allow any of them to score.
“He pitched out of some problems,” Lawn said. “He made a quantum leap in poise.”
Deason is becoming the pitcher Johnson and Lawn thought he could become when they recruited him at Nevada. Deason connected with Johnson but wanted to go to a bigger school. He signed with Oregon and was set to go there when the Ducks dropped him in June 2015.
Deason had sent Johnson a congratulatory text message after Arizona hired him June 8. When he found out Deason was available a few weeks later, Johnson reached out to his one-time recruit. Johnson and assistant coach Sergio Brown traveled to Ventura County, California, to watch Deason throw.
“I liked what I saw and felt like he could help us with some time,” Johnson said. “I’m really glad it has worked out the way that it has.”
Much like his career at Arizona, Deason’s recruitment to Arizona did not follow a straight path. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is the spot for me,” Deason said. “This is where I was meant to be.”
- Neither Arizona (33-17, 12-12 Pac-12) nor Arizona State (23-26, 8-16) announced starting pitchers for the series. Left-handers JC Cloney and Cameron Ming preceded Deason each of the past two weekends.
- Junior first baseman JJ Matijevic — who leads the Pac-12 in multiple offensive categories — has saved his best for ASU. Matijevic is 18 for 46 (.391) with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 12 career games against the Sun Devils. He’s 7 for 10 against ASU this season.
- Matijevic, Jared Oliva and Cal Stevenson are tied for the league lead with 52 runs apiece. Teammate Alfonso Rivas is next with 48. No other player in the Pac-12 has more than 43.