COLUMBIA — It was the pop of the catcher’s mitt that forced Rock Bridge pitching coach Ron Widbin to turn his attention.
“One of my guys said, ‘I have a younger friend of mine who would like to throw a little bit if that’s all right coach,’” Widbin said.
Rock Bridge (15-1) at Kirksville (5-8)
When: 5 p.m.
Where: Kirksville High School
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Even in middle school, Ryan Phillips could throw “some pretty good cheese,” Widbin said. The pitcher’s throwing session was enough to jar Widbin’s memory.
He quickly realized Phillips was that kid who pitched in the 2006 Little League World Series. Only then, Phillips was a 5-foot-6 12-year-old who could throw a fastball in the 70s coupled with a sharp breaking ball.
Now, he is a 16-year-old starting pitcher on the Bruins’ varsity baseball team with a 6-0 record, 0.66 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32 innings pitched. He is only 5-9, but he throws a fastball in the high 80s to accompany that breaking ball. He is the team’s ace, head coach Justin Towe said.
“I don’t think anybody’s had the hype that Ryan has,” Widbin said. “Talent-wise, I haven’t seen anybody better.”
In Little League, he was the power hitter and the starting pitcher. His nickname was “Big Nasty.” He hit four home runs in four at bats one game. Phillips was the star of the Daniel Boone Little League All-Star team.
Then, his fastball brought him success.
“If you’re throwing from 46 feet, and throwing 70 mph, you can just live on the fastball,” Phillips said.
His size generated his power in Little League. He was expected to throw hard. He was expected to hit home runs. But now, even with the added 14 feet, Phillips can throw hard.
“I think to a point you’re born with that arm,” Widbin said.
In his first season, his statistics were strong but not exceptional. He went 5-3 with a 2.70 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings pitched. And he was a 15-year-old pitching on varsity against players up to four years older than him. Not too shabby for a freshman.
Offseason workouts have helped Phillips build a strong lower body. The team is normally in the weight room at night, doing a routine of lifts and pushes, Widbin said.
“It pains me, as an old man, to watch them lift,” Widbin said. “Ryan is right up their with them. When you slap him on the back, nothing wiggles. I mean he’s a solid kid.”
Phillips is no longer one of the bigger players on the field. He has grown only 3 inches since 2006, something inevitable that can be discouraging, he said. After all, college recruiters often look for the perfect pitching body, the 6-foot tall, long and lean prospect, Widbin said. Fellow pitchers Travis Bittle and John Miles have those body types, while Phillips is built low to the ground.
But height doesn’t necessarily matter for both starting and relief pitchers, Widbin said. Billy Wagner is 5-11 and is sixth (386) in career saves in Major League Baseball. Reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum is only 5-11 as well.
“Around here, we could care less,” Widbin said. “You can play or you can’t. When the kid starts throwing that curveball and people are dancing out of the way, who cares at that point?”
It is the power generated by his leg strength that helps Phillips throw a fastball in the high 80s. Towe said a pitch in the 90s is within Phillips’ reach if he keeps working hard.
His current success comes from hard work and strong pitch selection. Varying pitches and not being too predictable is vital. Pitch selection is random but rehearsed, with different sequences available and just a little bit of freedom, a contrast to Little League.
“In Little League, you were just out there throwing,” Phillips said.
The biggest difference came in his hitting. In Little League, he was a power hitter. Fences were as close as 200 feet to center field, a contrast to the 408-feet distance to the center field fence on Rock Bridge’s home field.
“When you don’t grow, you just have to change who you are in baseball,” Phillips said. “I just really learned how to be a real team player, to get on base any way I can, just to be scrappy.”
As a result, Phillips bats first for the Bruins, as opposed to third for his Little League team. He no longer hits home runs frequently, but he does find a way to reach base. Despite having less speed than the typical leadoff hitter, Phillips still maintains the important high on-base percentage (.555) and batting average (.509) for leading off.
But his perspective on pitching remains the same — to just stay confident. Some of that confidence comes from pitching in all three games his team played on ESPN during the LLWS.
“It really taught me how to deal with pressure at an early age,” Phillips said. “I’ll be able to use that for the rest of my life, as far as baseball, as far as anything really.”
Despite the accolades, Phillips is humble. After explaining the format of the LLWS, he immediately gave credit to his six Bruins teammates who played with him in 2006.
Unlike many players, Phillips doesn’t let the spotlight affect him mentally, Widbin said. He’s been on ESPN. He’s been on television. He’s been in the newspaper. But “it doesn’t seem to matter to him,” Widbin said.
“What I love about Ryan is he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” Widbin said. “He puts the game into perspective. There’s a lot more to Ryan than baseball — his faith, his grades, a lot of things.
“He’s just a quality person.”