He was throwing well; He was throwing strikes; He was wearing number 35: all ways usually to describe Illinois-Chicago’s best pitcher. But nope, no Salemi on the mound. It was Matt Heaslip.
When Heaslip got off the team bus on Sunday, the only time he figured he would be stepping onto the field was during pregame warm-ups. He was wrong. When Salemi went down with a groin injury during his pregame bullpen session, Heaslip was forced to step in. The righty from Rockford, Ill., who had rendered 14 runs on 15 hits in his eight innings pitched so far this season, did more than his teammates ever could have anticipated. He put together what he described as the best game that he has pitched since last summer.
“I think it’s a little bit better [not to know when I am going to start], because up until that point, I’m just completely relaxed,” explained Heaslip as he held his arm after throwing an exorbitant 143 pitches, 101 of them for strikes.
The righty maintained that he had only thrown that many pitches “once or twice” before, if he had ever even gotten to that total at all. When asked if he could feel his arm, he responded, “Not very well.”
“He threw strikes and came after hitters,” said Missouri rightfielder Jonah Schmidt. “We just weren’t squaring balls up. He did a good job. You’ve got to tip your hat. He held us to one run in 8 2/3.”
Heaslip’s line was almost comical, going 8 2/3 innings and allowing one run on seven hits, but the righty struggled early. Missouri scored its only run and had accumulated five hits by the third inning, but it is safe to say the Flame did not flame out. Starting in the fourth, Heaslip switched to cruise control.
“It happens with a lot of pitchers,” theorized Schmidt. “Once they get out of a couple jams, they build a little confidence and stuff starts getting a little better and they trust it more.”
“The first few innings, I thought he used his fastball a lot and didn’t show us anything, which is a good thing for a pitcher,” explained Missouri centerfielder Brannon Champagne. “The later innings, he started bringing more stuff at us.”
Heaslip’s effectiveness was only topped by his forgetfulness. Oblivious to usual uniform protocol, Heaslip left his jersey on the team bus before the game, rendering him without a shirt to wear on the mound. Of course, he took the uniform of his injured teammate, Matt Salemi and pitched the entire game as number 35, not his usual number 38.
“I just messed up and forgot my jersey on the bus,” joked Heaslip, as he laughed about the heedless misplacement of his uniform.
When coach Mike Dee came out to bring in Eric Wyman to record the final out, the entire press box let out a communal groan. We are not supposed to root for a team or a player or outwardly show emotion, but we did. We had to. Heaslip was too good. He wanted that complete game. So did we. He looked too effective flailing out on the mound for two and a half hours in the 35 degree mid-Missouri weather wearing someone else’s number; but he came up an out short. Nevertheless, on a day in which Matt Heaslip had his teammate’s number, he also had Missouri’s.