Draft : : Story
Friday, April 25, 2014

High hopes at Hartford

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Hartford

Whether it was by pure coincidence or unfettered fate, unheralded freshman left-handed pitching prospect Sean Newcomb and first-year head coach Justin Blood both landed at the University of Hartford (Conn.) in the fall of 2011. They didn’t know one another and it’s possible neither were quite sure of what they were getting themselves into.

The Hartford Hawks had reached rock-bottom in the spring of 2011, finishing with an overall record of 6-43-1. The program hadn’t achieved a winning record or been relevant in the NCAA Division I America East Conference since the 1992 team finished 27-21 overall and second in the league standings at 18-10.

Fast-forward two-and-a-half years to the 2014 season and look at how much has changed. Newcomb, now a 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior out of Middleboro, Mass., is projected as a first-round pick in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft. Blood had the Hawks sitting 23-14 overall and 9-2 and in first place in the AEC heading into a three-game weekend series at league rival Binghamton (N.Y.).

“We’re definitely excited about how we’ve been playing this spring,” Blood told PG this week. “We got out of the gates a little bit slower than we had hoped and expected, but for us to come from a 6-and-43 team three years ago to where we are now, we definitely feel very good about the progress.”

The Hawks finished 16-40 in 2012 – Blood and Newcomb’s first season together – and 17-36 last year. Newcomb’s progress has mirrored that of the entire program, and after an electric start to his junior season the big left-hander is now ranked the No. 16 overall prospect in the upcoming draft.

“As a team we’ve been doing really well compared to previous years,” Newcomb said when he spoke with PG on Thursday. “Personally, I started off pretty good with that streak of scoreless innings and since then I’ve been doing pretty well and helping the team win some games. I’m pretty happy with where we are at.”

The scoreless innings streak was actually an earned run streak, but that’s nit-picking. Armed with a fastball that consistently sits 94 to 96 miles-per-hour, Newcomb did not allow an earned run in his first six starts – and only one unearned run – a streak that spanned 39 2/3 innings. It came to an end in his seventh start when he allowed an earned run in the bottom of the first inning in an April 6 game at Maine.

“Obviously, I knew it was going on while it was happening,” Newcomb said of the streak. “At first I didn’t really think much of it through the first two (starts), but after that it became more known and people would ask me about it. I went out with a lot of confidence knowing that I was doing well and the opposing hitters probably knew the same thing, and it kind of carried me between starts.”

While the Hawks have been playing well this season, they haven’t been overly generous in terms of run support for Newcomb. After nine starts and 58 1/3 innings, Newcomb had 64 strikeouts against 27 walks with a 1.23 ERA but owned only a 3-2 record.

 “This spring in particular, Sean has just been very consistent,” Blood said. “Our guys know that when he gets on the mound you’re going to get six, seven innings worth of work out of him, at least; he’s going to give you a chance to be in and win every game. … He’s a tough kid and, obviously, he’s physically imposing; his stuff sets him apart.

“There’s nothing better for a team than when you have a No. 1 horse that you can roll out there and you know he’s going to set the tone for the weekend and give you a chance to win.”

J.P. Ricciardi, the former general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays who is now a special assistant to New York Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson, had the opportunity to watch Newcomb pitch earlier this month. After seeing his fastball top out at 95 mph, Ricciardi was eager to see what else the big left-hander could do.

“Velocity is great, but it’s not the end-all, be-all,” he told the Associated Press. “You’ve got to be able to throw strikes; you’ve got to be able to get people out. That’s the most important thing at the major league level. That’s what’s important to us, the guy who can throw strikes and get you off the field real quick. He’s throwing strikes, so he’s doing a good job.”

Newcomb was undrafted coming out of Middleboro High School in 2011. He played in the 2009 PG WWBA 16u National Championship and the 2010 PG WWBA 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., with Mass Pride 16u and 18u teams, and attended the 2010 Northeast Top Prospect Showcase in Bristol, Conn.

“Going to that Perfect Game (Northeast Top) was pretty good for me,” he said. “Hartford got to see me there and I got some contact from some other schools that kind of put me on the radar a little bit more from just playing travel ball.”

Newcomb was also a standout tight-end on the football field in high school and reportedly received letters of interest from the football programs at schools like Boston College, Rutgers and North Carolina State.

Early in his recruiting process he was looking for a school that would allow him to play both baseball and football. As he got older, he determined that he was not only more skilled at baseball but enjoyed it more, and especially liked the idea of playing games almost daily instead of just once a week.

Hartford senior catcher James Alphonso from Raynham, Mass., was a teammate of Newcomb’s on the Mass Pride 18u team that played at the 2010 PG WWBA 18u National Championship, and he encouraged Newcomb to contact Harford’s previous coaching staff. Newcomb sent out an e-mail, made a visit and immediately accepted a scholarship offer. It was the only campus visit he made.

Blood pitched collegiately at Franklin Pierce University, an NCAA Division II school located in Rindge, New Hampshire, where after a three-year career he was drafted in 2001 by the Seattle Mariners. He spent three seasons in the minor leagues before retiring to get into college coaching.

He spent six seasons as the pitching coach at the University of Connecticut before coming to Hartford in the fall of 2011, the same time Newcomb arrived. During those six seasons in Storrs, Blood had 14 pitchers drafted, including five from the Huskies’ record-breaking 2011 team.

Blood did not recruit Newcomb to Hartford, nor did he try to lure him to UConn. Once he was hired at Hartford he started doing his homework to see who the program had coming in, and that included watching video of Newcomb from the 2010 PG Northeast Top Prospect Showcase.

Watching the video, Blood said Newcomb looked like a “little bit softer version of what he is today.” Newcomb was listed at 6-foot-5, 215-pounds at the time of the Northeast Top.

“He definitely was overlooked,” Blood said. “After his first bullpen (in the fall of 2011) when he was 86 to 89 (mph) and touched 90 a couple of times, my first questions were ‘How did you get here? How did I miss you?’ and ‘When did you start throwing so hard?’ And I think it was in that order. … I can say that I’m lucky now that the Hartford coaches at that time got a chance to see him and we’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to help him develop.”

Newcomb made nine starts as a freshman and finished 2-4 with a 4.17 ERA, 45 strikeouts and 38 walks in 45 1/3 innings. He was 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA, 92 strikeouts and 37 walks in 72 innings as a sophomore.

He pitched in the Cape Cod League the past two summers, although his 2013 season in the Cape got a late start because of a case of mononucleosis. Once he was able to pitch toward the end of the summer he made quite an impression, with his fastball reaching the mid-90s; Perfect Game named him to the Cape’s Top Prospect Team.

“I got to put myself up against some of the best (college players) in the country competition-wise (in terms of) where I was at, and I did pretty well; that gave me some confidence,” Newcomb said. “Being around some of those coaches … and being around some of those top talented kids, I was able to pick up some stuff – it kind of rubs off on each other.”

The strength of this year’s Hawks’ team definitely lies in its pitching staff, which should come as no surprise considering Blood’s background. Newcomb didn’t receive a decision in four of his first nine starts – he was 3-1 with two no-decisions during his six starts without allowing an earned run – but his bullpen has fared much better. Heading into the weekend, relievers Sam McKay, Kyle Gauthier and Jacob Mellin had combined to go 11-1 with a 2.21 ERA over 69 2/3 innings.

“We brought in a lot of the same lessons that we learned and implemented, and plans that we implemented when we were at UConn,” Blood said. “I’m a pitching guy so pitching is a first and foremost concern for me, and we’ve got a big sophomore class right now and a lot of those guys are performing well. Most of them are in bullpen/reliever roles right now but are guys that we think are going to be able to step in to more prominent roles in the next year or two.”

Blood is the first to acknowledge Newcomb deserves every bit of the attention that has come his way during his time on the Hartford campus, and especially this spring in his draft-eligible year. He isn’t single-handedly responsible for this winning season, however.

“We obviously have some other guys that are doing a good job as well and we’re just happy to be winning games and starting to get our alumni and people on campus excited about our baseball program again,” Blood said. He quickly added that Newcomb and his first-round draft potential are playing a large role in the increased interest.

“When you win games and you have kids that are draft prospects, whether they’re first-rounders or top 20-rounders, people get excited because you have quality players and you’re winning baseball games, he said. “It definitely is opening some people’s eyes and not just recruits but people on our campus and the local media. Everyone is taking notice and getting excited, and we’re certainly happy about that.”

Newcomb and Blood arrived on the Hartford campus together, just over two-and-a-half years ago. The relationship has certainly been mutually beneficial, with the prospect almost certain to reach his goal of playing baseball on the professional level and the head coach achieving his of turning a moribund program around.

“I feel like I’ve come a lot further than I ever expected to,” Newcomb said. “I’ve always wanted to be well-known and hopefully be a high draft pick, and that potential is there now compared to where I used to be. The biggest thing that I’ve done in my three years here is I’ve learned how to pitch where before I was just a thrower. Working with Coach Blood on all the mechanical stuff and the off-speed (pitches), it’s ended up being a pretty good three years so far.

“I would definitely call this a dream,” he concluded. “Coming out of high school I only got one questionnaire about the possibility of going pro and I didn’t really think too much about it. There was always the hope that I would get some type of look, and now to be at that level, it’s a dream come true.”

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