College Sports

Olathe South grad Isaiah Campbell takes center stage in College World Series

Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell, an Olathe South graduate, signed autographs for fans a day before the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell, an Olathe South graduate, signed autographs for fans a day before the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. smcdowell@kcstar.com

The first thing that stands out about Isaiah Campbell is his size. You can’t miss him. He’s tall and wide-shouldered, and when dressed in his Arkansas gear, you might assume he’s a linebacker.

He’s 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, an intimidating presence on a pitcher’s mound with an overhand fastball good enough to mow down hitters from college baseball’s top conference. But his best weapon, he insists, isn’t the 95 mph pitch. Or the power slider. Or his size.

It’s his intellect.

You see, Campbell thinks of himself as a nerd. Always has. Back when he pitched for Olathe South. Back when he made Kansas City his home. And even in college, when he signed up to be a biochemistry major.

But it’s only recently that he’s used it to his advantage on a baseball field.

“The mental side of baseball became really fun for me because it’s all about trying to out-smart the hitter,” Campbell said. “And I enjoy that.”

Campbell, 21, developed into one of the best pitchers in Division I baseball this spring, rewarded when the Seattle Mariners drafted him 76th overall last week. He is 12-1 with a 2.26 earned run average, 115 strikeouts and just 20 walks over 111 1/3 innings. As the bona fide ace of the staff, he will take the ball Saturday for Arkansas’ opener in the College World Series.

He’s come a long way.

Sure, Campbell starred at Olathe South, recording a career ERA under 2.00 and attracting the recruitment of big-name programs. But he dreamed of becoming a major league pitcher — the first to be born in Portugal, but more on that in a minute. To reach that objective, the mental aspect of his game needed work.

It got some. Campbell dived into programs like Trackman and Rapsodo with pitching coach Matt Hobbs, a Missouri alum. The technologies track pitches, dissecting their effectiveness, movement, spin and other tools.

“We’re talking everything — spin rate, this, that, you name it. He’s into that,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Very smart. And you can’t out-work him.

“The physical stuff is there. Once he started thinking, ‘Hey, I’m the man; I gotta be the man,” then he became the man.”

The results of the studies provided specifics.

The first? Pound the strike zone. In 2018, Campbell walked 29 in 69 2/3 innings while serving as the No. 3 pitcher in the rotation. The innings have nearly doubled in 2019. The walks have still decreased.

More results: Establish a more distinct difference between his slider and curveball. Use the extreme over-the-top motion further to his advantage.

And on the list went.

“I absolutely enjoy it,” Campbell said. “I love learning what makes your stuff work the best — how to use your fastball, how to use your slider, how to use your curveball, how to make yourself the best pitcher you can possible be. I love learning about spin rate and how I can make a pitch better.”

He bet on this happening. Risked it all.

As he headed to Omaha last spring for the College World Series, the Los Angeles Angels drafted Campbell in the 24th round. But the money wasn’t right. Campbell passed.

He didn’t leave the Arkansas campus last summer. Working. Stacking the odds in his favor.

The Mariners took him in the Compensation B round — just after the completion of the second round — in this month’s MLB Draft.

“I know who I am,” Campbell said. “I mean, it was tough (turning down the Angels), because it’s a childhood dream. But I’m a hard worker. I’m never going to back down from adversity. I’m always going to come back stronger. That’s how I grew up.”

Funny story about that. Campbell was born in Portugal. His father was in the Air Force. They moved a lot. Lived in Germany. Started playing baseball in Turkey, shortly before grade school. OK, it’s a bit of a loophole, but no Portugal-born player has ever made the major leagues.

Campbell’s family — mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law — will be in attendance at TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday, when Campbell takes the mound against Florida State at 6 p.m. “I feel like half of Olathe South High School is coming, too,” he said. Former teammates. Former coaches.

They will see the size. They will notice the power behind his fastball. But Campbell will attempt to seize on the most recent addition to his skill-set.

His mind.

“That’s what’s made me a better pitcher — figuring out what works best for me and when it works,” Campbell said. “I’m a different pitcher than I was last year.”

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