Matt Hall hasn’t always been a strikeout pitcher.
Hall — a junior southpaw for Missouri State, which battles Arkansas beginning Friday in a best-of-three NCAA super regional — doesn’t feature overpowering stuff.
His fastball typically sits in the upper-80s accompanied by a hammer curveball, but no pitcher in NCAA Division I has fanned more batters in 2015 than Hall, a Lee’s Summit West graduate who Wednesday was chosen first-team All-America by Collegiate Baseball.
“Going up to Cape Cod last summer really opened my eyes and showed me I had the stuff to strike people out,” said Hall, who is 11-2 with a 2.17 ERA and an NCAA-best 163 strikeouts in 116 innings this season.
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Hall averaged a respectable 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings as a freshman and sophomore for the Bears, but that’s a far cry from the 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings he’s averaged this season.
“I really took my mental game to a whole new level this year,” said Hall, who is three strikeouts from former Wichita State star Bryan Oelkers’ single-season Missouri Valley Conference record (166 strikeouts in 1982).
He credited tutelage from former Bears ace Nick Petree, a 2013 ninth-round pick by the Cardinals, and studying other elite pitchers in the Cape Cod League for the transformation.
“I picked brains a little bit and that helped me in the long run read hitters better, set people up better and just put hitters away from learning from other people,” Hall said.
The main lesson Hall learned was to remain aggressive.
“Basically, don’t be afraid; just attack,” said Hall, who went 3-1 with a 2.10 ERA and a league-best 47 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings for the Falmouth Commodores. “Go out after guys and trust your stuff. You can’t play this game with fear. If you play with fear, you’re not going to be successful, so I just go out there with a competitive mindset.”
Hall also said his rapport with fellow Lee’s Summit West graduate Matt Fultz, who has been his battery mate going back to little league and high school, is a big reason for his success mowing through lineups.
“We’ve always been pretty good about being on the same page, setting up hitters and putting hitters away,” Hall said.
Lee’s Summit West coach Jay Meyer isn’t shocked at Hall’s success.
During the spring of 2009, Meyer was desperate after burning through every arm on the varsity roster in the season’s first few games.
He needed somebody to soak up innings in the tourney’s final game and called Hall, who was a Titans freshman at the time, the night before the game.
“I need five innings from you tomorrow,” Meyer said. “Can you give it to me?”
Hall, who had been scheduled to pitch a JV game, didn’t hesitate, “Yeah, Skip. Anything you need.”
The next day, Hall picked up a varsity uniform from Meyer’s office for the first time and that night twirled five shutout innings with 10 strikeouts.
“He’s always been the big-game pitcher and wanted the baseball,” Meyer said. “His demeanor is so competitive, but he’s always been a humble, sincere, confident, cocky type. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but he’s a guy who’ll say, ‘I’ll show you. Just give me the ball, and I’ll show you.’ More often than not, he went out and put the team in a position to win the game, so he’s a guy that you want the ball in his hand.”
Hall will get the ball in the second game of the super regional Saturday at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark., where he’ll be pitching to keep Missouri State’s season alive or into the program’s second College World Series depending on Friday’s outcome.
The Bears, who are the No. 8 national seed but will be on the road for the super regional because the Springfield Cardinals are playing at Hammons Field this weekend, will need Hall to live up to his big-game reputation to make it happen.
“I just want to go out there and give the team a chance to win,” Hall said. “If I do that, then I know I’ve done my job and I know (Bears pitching) coach (Paul) Evans will be happy with that. … As a team, we’re just out here having fun, playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played and everything’s falling into place.”
Missouri State reached the College World Series for the first and only time in program history in 2003.