May 23, 2007
by James Schleicher
When all 6 feet, 5 inches of the junior left-handed pitcher Nick Hagadone steps onto the mound late in the game, one can almost see the score keeper at Husky Ballpark tallying in his head how many zeros he will put on the board before the game finishes, usually just one or two, but sometimes as many as four or five.
At the same time, a little horde of professional scouts pull out their radar guns and get ready for the show they have been waiting for most of the evening.
Staring down from behind his glove, the beast-in-waiting gets the sign from the catcher then rocks and fires 95 miles-per-hour high and inside.
The pop on leather rings out into the night, and the crowd sighs in relief because they know now they can sit back and enjoy the show.
The batter steps back a little in the box, not really wanting to lose a chunk of his elbow.
A couple dozen more fascinating pitches, and the night has come to an end.
After putting another save away with ease, Hagadone answers questions in a low rhythm between trying to catch his breath while he retrieves his gear from the bullpen.
Almost every time he seems to say the same thing.
"I just went out there, tried to be aggressive as possible and just throw as many strikes as I could and just get ahead of everyone," Hagadone said after one save in which he pitched four innings.
When asked about playing with the weight of the game hanging over his head, Hagadone keeps it simple.
"I love it," he said.
He explains why he loves the pressure, but he doesn't really need to say any more, because the way his eyes and his smile light up the night says it all. He's like a Rottweiler with a T-bone, and every time he gets to rip another All-American batter to shreds or secures a win for his team, it brings him joy.
"For me, he's our closer," coach Ken Knutson said. "He's the silver bullet. If I can get to him, we're going to win."
As the closer for the Huskies, Hagadone has a key role to play for his team. When the Huskies have a lead late in a baseball game he is put in to make sure that they keep that lead, and sometimes that means coming into a game with the bases loaded in the ninth to make sure that nobody reaches home.
"There's a lot more pressure," Hagadone said. "I can't let anyone get a hit and get on base. If they score, we'll probably end up losing. I like it, though. It makes me pitch better, I think, when the stakes are a lot higher."
Despite all the pressure, Nick has done his job better than any other pitcher in the Husky bullpen and has a team-leading 11 saves.
"He's just one of those no-fear guys on the mound," said Brandon McKerney, his best friend on the team and a fellow pitcher. "He just goes right after guys, and that's the key to success in this league."
In his career at Washington, Hagadone has had plenty of stellar appearances, including a combined no-hitter with Tim Lincecum last year. This year he has been a force in all of his outings.
"There's not one game that stands out," Knutson said. "It's all pretty good. When he gets out there to pitch, it's pretty fun to watch him get after some good hitters in our league."
While many left-handers get used as specialists who can throw pitches that sneak past opponents' bats, Hagadone uses his size and strength to play his role as a power pitcher.
After working hard in the offseason and over the winter, the big hurler came into this season as the biggest weapon in the Husky rotation. With all the hard work, Hagadone secured his spot to start games Friday nights this year, an honor reserved for Lincecum the year before.
"This year I really focused on how I wanted to be as good as I could be before the season," Hagadone said. "I think Hans [Straub], our new strength coach, really helped a lot. He's one of the main reasons that happened. He's really good with the baseball-oriented strength training."
Knutson ended up needing power in the tail end of games, though, and Hagadone found himself coming in from the bullpen by the end of the first month of the season. Not exactly what he had planned.
"At first, I was really disappointed," Hagadone said. "I wanted the opportunity to start, but looking back I'm kind of glad that coach made the change, because it seems like it helped the team a lot too. Also I've had some success closing, so that's good."
Fortunately for the Huskies, Hagadone did not have any problem going back to the role he got used to during his sophomore season.
"That was a hard move for him, I think -- just emotionally," Knutson said. "It's worked out. He certainly likes it now, and I think the team just rallies around that presence."
Along with much improved strength and control, Hagadone had plenty of experience with things going not exactly as he had expected.
In high school Hagadone hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father and play college football as a quarterback. Hagadone had to persevere for three years before he finally started as a senior at quarterback on his Sumner, Wash. team. Playing football in college didn't materialize, but in the spring when he played his backup sport, baseball, scouts suddenly started to see a lot of potential in the lefty who had the size of a Major League pitcher.
A Major League Baseball team picked him up as a late-round draft pick based on his potential, and suddenly a bright future in baseball materialized.
He decided to let the majors wait for a few years, and when he got the call from Knutson, he chose to come to Washington to improve his draft stock.
"We just sort of bet on the body that things were going to improve," Knutson said. "And they certainly have."
Since high school Hagadone has improved immensely. He started throwing pitches in the mid-80s with the makings of a breaking ball and has since developed into a pitcher with command of up to four pitches, some of which can reach the mid-90s.
With the numbers he has put up this year -- 11 saves and a 2.97 ERA -- Hagadone will likely get drafted in the early rounds of this year's MLB draft, and find himself pitching for a minor league team by the end of the summer.
"I'm just hoping to get the opportunity," Hagadone said. "I can't wait. Once you get there it's still a long road to the majors, but I can't wait to start."
Here's to loving it.