04/17/06 — Dustin Sasser - Giving it his all

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Dustin Sasser - Giving it his all

By Steve Roush
Published in Sports on April 17, 2006 1:59 PM

Learning how to deal with a tough outing is just as important as handling success for pitchers at any level.

Sometimes fastballs miss their spots, curveballs hang in the strike zone and hitters make you pay.

East Carolina University left-hander Dustin Sasser, a Charles B. Aycock graduate, had one of those nights on Friday against visiting Albany.

In the non-conference contest, the southpaw yielded five runs on seven hits, including a pair of home runs in the Pirates' 16-5 victory. Adding to the frustration, he was one out away from still being eligible for his fifth win but was lifted in the top of the fifth after allowing a home run to Tom Hill, then walking the final batter he faced.

"I just didn't feel like I had my best stuff. I was out there battling. My fastball was good, but the guy made a good swing on an inside pitch and hit it out of the park," Sasser said. "During these games, you just try to get outs the best way you can. You're just out there fighting."

But the Pikeville native is a competitor. He has that "bulldog mentality" that every coach wants to see in a hurler. After all, he has worked back from Tommy John surgery and earned a spot in ECU's weekend rotation as a sophomore after sitting out last season.

Those characteristics and ability to persevere have not been over-looked by first-year head coach Billy Godwin.

"His biggest attribute is he's a great competitor. He'll go back to work," Godwin said. "There's a fire burning in him deeper than anything. Expect a good outing from him next weekend, I promise.

"He's got the 'x-factor,' and that's the competitive desire. We'll win a lot of ball games if we have a lot of Dustin Sassers."

No sophomore slump

Sasser made his mark quickly at ECU quickly as a freshman in 2004.

Working mostly out of the bullpen, he led the Pirates' pitching staff with 20 appearances and had an earned run average of 4.29 with a 2-0 record and three saves. His first career win was against then No. 11 Clemson early in his freshman year during the Keith LeClair Invitational.

In Sasser's first career start against Houston, he worked seven innings and struck out seven -- holding the Cougars to just one run on four hits in ECU's 5-3 win.

After a year of surgery, rest and rehab, Sasser, now 4-4, continues to make strides as a sophomore. He is tied for the team lead in starts (10), tied for second on the team in wins (4) and ranks third on the staff in strikeouts (34) in 52-plus innings of work. Sasser currently owns a 3.93 earned run average.

Coming off of elbow surgery, that kind of durability is obviously pleasing.

"It's been great. I didn't expect to come in and start this year, but I worked hard and fought for a spot on the weekend rotation," he said. "After surgery, you're like, 'Wow, where do I start.' You don't know how your arms going to feel throwing this many innings, but it's felt great."

He has registered wins against College of Charleston, UNC-Wilmington, Stony Brook and Marist.

In his first win of the season on Feb. 18, he pitched through sleet and snow to beat College of Charleston, yielding only two runs in five innings of work.

After picking up a victory at home over UNC-Wilmington in front of a large crowd on Feb. 25, Sasser improved to 3-1 when he combined with Carter Harrell on a three-hit shutout against Stony Brook on March 4. The 6-0, 197-pound lefty tossed seven scoreless innings, giving up just three hits with one walk and two strikeouts, before Harrell finished off the win.

Fourteen days later, Sasser turned in the most impressive performance of his collegiate career -- pitching 81/3 shutout innings in ECU's 7-0 win over Marist. He improved to 4-2 with the win, allowing only three hits with five strikeouts (tying a career high) and walked three.

Two of his four losses came on the road against traditional powers, Cal State Fullerton and Rice. Despite the defeats, Sasser enjoyed being on the big stage against some of the top players in the country.

"When you're at Rice and Cal State Fullerton, that's the big time," he said. "You just want to go out there and throw the best you can. It's been a real good experience for me."

With more than a month left this season and two more years to follow, he will likely have plenty more chances to pitch against some of the nation's best.

A catcher's perspective

On top of hitting a ton, ECU catcher Jake Smith obviously knows a thing or two about working with pitchers.

The senior backstop has started in 37 of ECU's 38 games this year and is on the watch list for the prestigious Johnny Bench Award, which is given annually to the top Division I catcher.

Smith, batting .292 with six home runs and a team-best 39 RBIs, offered high praise of Sasser's effort and repertoire.

"He gives it his all every time he goes out there, even when he doesn't have his best stuff," Smith said. "He had a great freshman year, and since the injury he's fought back and worked hard day-in and day-out.

"He's got real good command of his fastball, and when he's got his curveball working, he's pretty much unhittable."

The double play may be a pitcher's best friend, but a catcher with confidence has to be a close second.

Finishing strong

When Sasser takes the mound again, next weekend at home against Marshall in Conference USA play, Friday's start against Albany will be exactly where it needs to be -- in the past. Sure, he will have thought about and learned from the rough start, but not dwelled upon it.

"If I have a bad outing, I think about it and try to figure out what I did wrong," Sasser said. "I'll go home and evaluate every pitch they hit and come back during the week and work on it."

Leaving Friday in the past is key, because there are bigger fish to fry -- helping the Pirates finish strong and claim a berth in the NCAA Tournament. And that goal is within reach, especially after last Wednesday's extra-innings win over N.C. State.

Following the sweep of Albany, ECU is 25-13 overall and is fifth in the CUSA standings with a 4-5 mark with one month left in the regular season.

The Pirates, winners of six straight, still have key conference series left against Marshall, Tulane, Southern Miss, UAB and Memphis before the conference tournament at Rice. Two online college baseball web sites already have the Pirates penciled in their projected NCAA field -- one has them in the Chapel Hill regional, the other has ECU at Winthrop (S.C.).

"We're playing really great ball right now ... Coming off a great win against State and taking 2-of-3 against UCF, which is a tough place to play," Sasser said. "I just want to keep going out there, do the best I can and hopefully help take us to the regionals."