February 28, 2008
By Jeff Brown
Less than four years ago, Nick Cassavechia was just another freshman walk-on, splitting time behind the plate and on the mound during Baylor's fall baseball practices. That year's team boasted the most experienced squad in program history--one that would eventually make it all the way to the College World Series.
With such an experienced roster, Cassavechia was buried on the depth chart at both pitcher and catcher, and neither he nor the coaching staff was quite sure what his future held. Certainly none would have predicted that by 2008, he would be a preseason all-American and a candidate for National Closer of the Year.
"Nick came highly recommended by his summer league coach, Sam Carpenter for the Dallas Mustangs," says Baylor head coach Steve Smith. "But it wasn't clear when Nick showed up exactly what he was, whether he was a catcher or a pitcher. He had done both for them."
After seeing him pitch, the coaching staff decided to keep the Dallas native on the mound. But on a team loaded with veteran relievers like Ryan LaMotta and Abe Woody--who still rank No. 2 and 3 all-time in career relief appearances at Baylor--it seemed likely that Cassavechia would take a redshirt and sit out the year to preserve his four years of eligibility.
Six weeks into the season, Smith changed his mind.
"I thought, this guy's the same all the time. I really had the feeling that it wasn't gonna matter how big the crowd was, or what was on the line, or anything like that. He was gonna do what he was gonna do, and he was gonna compete," Smith says.
"Even though I was redshirting, I was still traveling with the team everywhere," Cassavechia remembers. "The team went to Oklahoma State, and it was the first time I didn't travel, so I figured it was for sure that I was redshirting. The next Tuesday, he put me in the game. Even though I only pitched a few innings, I think it ended up being a good experience."
Cassavechia made an impression on the coaches despite making just five appearances as a freshman, covering a total of 5 2/3 innings.
"I remember him pitching at Nebraska and striking out [2005 national player of the year] Alex Gordon, and I thought, you know what? That's worth 10 innings right there," Smith says.
"The thing about Nick that stood out right away was that he was ultracompetitive," says then assistant coach Chris Berry, now the pitching coach at Sam Houston State. "He went up to Nebraska and struck out Alex Gordon and made him look really silly, and I think that might have been Nick's defining moment as a college player, because it showed him that he was capable of doing what he's doing now."
Though the strikeout is what everyone remembers, Cassavechia points to something else as the key to that season.
"If I had redshirted, I wouldn't have traveled, and being around all those guys like Abe Woody, Ryan LaMotta, Jeff Mandel--those bullpen guys, just seeing how they go about their business, it helped me in the next couple of years."
That fall, a change in Cassavechia's throwing motion would prove to be the final key to unlocking his potential on the mound.
"The big change in him--and Chris Berry is the one who deserves the credit for this--was when Chris came to me and asked, 'Can I drop Nick down?'" Smith remembers. "I said absolutely. Nick was receptive to it, and Chris was good at coaching him through it and getting him to do it."
The change--moving from a traditional over-the-top pitching motion to a more sidearm delivery--gave new life to Cassavechia's pitches and added an element of deception, especially against right-handed hitters.
"We started playing catch in the outfield, and we just moved him down and moved him down, and he found a comfort spot where the ball just reacted different," says Berry, who had learned the sidearm delivery himself while pitching at Bluefield College in Virginia. "That day playing catch, I went in and told Coach Smith, 'We've got something; this is gonna work.'"
"He just needed something, some deception," Smith says. "He needed some other weapon, and getting him to drop down gave him that weapon. He's just gotten better and better, but it takes some time. You're talking about a guy who's changing the way he's throwing, the way he's thrown his whole life."
Cassavechia began his sophomore year in a set-up role, then took over the closing job when Mandel was moved to the rotation midway through the year. Despite holding the role for only half the season, Cassavechia tallied eight saves, good for fourth in the Big 12 Conference and sixth-best in school history.
"Nick deserves more credit than anybody, because he bought into doing it," Berry says. "When you've got a guy like Nick who comes in and nobody knows who he is, and he comes for little to nothing to go to school, he makes a transition from one position to another... To watch that blossom and grow, that's special."
Cassavechia carried that success into 2007, tying for second in the Big 12 and 23rd nationally with 11 saves and earning all-conference honors. As a senior, he began this spring tied for second all-time at Baylor with 19 career saves; he also ranks among the program's career leaders in relief wins and appearances. His steady nature, both on the field and off, led his teammates to vote him a team co-captain for this spring.
"That's one of the biggest honors I think I've ever received throughout my life," Cassavechia says. "All these guys think of me as their leader. There's some responsibility with that, and I'm just always trying to be on my game 100 percent of the time so they can follow me. I'm really big into leading by example, so I try to go out there, do my business, and hopefully they'll follow me and do the same thing. I figure if we all do that, we'll be alright."
With a potentially excellent young rotation and a lineup coming into its own, the 2008 Baylor squad figures to be a lot better than "alright."
"[Getting to the College World Series] has kind of been the goal the past three years; that's what everybody talks about is going to Omaha," Cassavechia says. "This year's the first year since I've been here that people aren't talking about Omaha, they're talking national championship. The team really does believe this; it's everybody, all 40 of us, that's all we're talking about. We raised the bar high, and that's my expectation. I think that's all of our expectations for this season."
Though Cassavechia is thinking about going to law school down the road, right now he hopes to get a chance to continue his career professionally.
"Somebody will give him a chance," Smith says. "He's never gonna profile for them; he's not a 6-foot-3 righthander throwing 92 [mph]. So he'll have to prove himself at every level of the game, and time will tell."
"He's not a guy that most people look at and go 'That's a really good Division I guy.' He just doesn't fit that mold," Berry adds. "But here he is. I saw him pitch for two years. Last year he had a phenomenal year, and I'm gonna go on record as saying he's probably one of the top two or three closers in the country. Who would've ever thought that?"