Stars have a tendency to rise to the occasion in the biggest situations.
So, when the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League needed someone to close out games this summer after rising Illinois hurler Tyler Jay and UC Santa Barbara’s Dillon Tate went off to play for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, head coach Scott Pickler proposed moving Cal State Fullerton sophomore righthanded pitcher Phil Bickford to the role.
Feeling good about his starting pitching, but weary about the thin nature of his bullpen, Pickler called up Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook to make sure it was OK to move the talented righty from the starting rotation to the closer role. Vanderhook was fine with it, Bickford moved to the bullpen after one start, and the ultra-talented righty put together one of the most impressive summers in college baseball, earning him the distinction as the 2014 Perfect Game Summer Player of the Year, an award that last year went to Kennesaw State’s Max Pentecost, who had a banner ’14 college campaign before becoming a first-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in the Major League Baseball draft.
“We were put in a tight situation and we asked him if he wanted the ball. He said yes, and as he settled into the role, it seemed like he wanted the ball more and more,” Pickler said. “We had it worked out not to throw him back-to-back nights, and he was just a great competitor out there. When he gets out there, he just is the type of guy who accepts whatever role he’s given.”
Those familiar with Phil Bickford’s recent history aren’t surprised by his summer at the Cape Cod League. Bickford, of course, was a first-round pick to Toronto out of high school, but spurned the Jays for a chance to pitch for traditional power Cal State Fullerton. Sure, Bickford had his freshman moments for the Titans in ’14, but the more he pitched, the more comfortable and dominant he became. Sound familiar?
For the Titans in ’14, Bickford tallied a 2.13 ERA in 20 appearances and 10 starts, while also tallying 74 strikeouts and just 13 walks. Bickford showed very good command of his fastball in the spring and earned Freshman All-American honors as a result of his contributions to Vanderhook’s club.
“He’s very good, and he doesn’t have to be taught a lot right now,” Vanderhook said about the righty. “He has a very good fastball and we wanted him to go out this summer and put together a dynamic No. 2 offering. It looks like he went out there and showed a really nice feel for his breaking ball.
“As I tell all of our guys when they leave for the summer, go out and come back with a winning feeling,” he continued. “Phil did that with the Red Sox this summer by helping them win a championship. That’s something that’s a very big deal to that organization and league.”
As is the theme with Fullerton’s other two stalwart pitchers — righties Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza — the most impressive part of Bickford’s summer was his sheer consistency.
Bickford allowed just three hits in his first appearance of the summer on June 15th against Wareham, and though he allowed three runs in just two innings against Bourne the next time out, he didn’t allow a run in five-straight appearances until a July 14th meeting with Harwich. There, Bickford allowed two runs and two hits in just a 1/3 inning of work. But again, Bickford never got rattled and finished the summer in amazing fashion, ending the Cape Cod season with 10-straight shutout appearances, while also having a 0.00 ERA in 7 1/3 innings, along with 10 strikeouts, no walks and three saves, helping guide the Red Sox to the league championship with a title series win over Falmouth.
“He was absolutely everything we had heard he was going to be,” Pickler said. “His velocity when he started wasn’t as high, but once he got into that closer role, he just reached back and started punching guys out.
“He didn’t only come into games and do a great job of commanding the strike zone, he did so by staying down in the zone with his fastball,” he continued. “He had a confidence about him, and it was something that really resonated with the rest of our team.”
Bickford finished the summer with a 2.25 ERA in 14 appearances and 20 innings of work, along with 33 strikeouts and five walks. The goals Bickford had entering the summer were reached. In the spring, Bickford, as a starter, typically sat anywhere from 90-93 with his fastball with usually impeccable command. He also flashed three secondary offerings, including a 73-75 mph curveball, 78-79 mph changeup and a low-80s slider, which was a strong offering this summer and had some nice depth to it. Out of the bullpen for the Red Sox, Bickford showed more impactful velocity, sitting 93-97 with the offering, while also touching 98 at times. Overall, Bickford showed better feel for his secondary offerings — particularly his changeup — this summer despite predominantly throwing fastballs, many estimating more than 80-percent of the time.
“He was a strike-thrower and guys knew what he was throwing at times, but he’d just find a way to deceive them. Hitters just weren’t seeing him very well,” Pickler said. “When you can throw your fastball the way he does, and have the ability to also mix in some secondary offerings, you’re in the head of the hitter. It makes you more electric.
“I just really like him. He’s quick to the plate and fields his position very well,” he continued. “He just does a lot of things very well.”
With the hype always surrounding him since turning down the Jays out of high school and going to Fullerton, lofty expectations, as was the case in the spring, were placed on Phil Bickford entering the summer at the Cape Cod League.
The bigger the stage, the more dominant he became. Just as we expected.
Previous PG Summer Collegiate National Players of the Year:
2011: Shaun Cooper
2012: Sean Manaea
2013: Max Pentecost