In a February game against the No. 4-ranked Texas A&M Aggies, Pepperdine Waves junior Pitcher A.J. Puckett faced adversity. He gave up for runs in the first three innings, walked a batter, threw a wild pitch and received a visit at the mound from first-year pitching coach Rolando Garza.
But after the rough start, Puckett dug deep and didn’t allow any other runs for the next five innings. He was eventually replaced by sophomore Max Gamboa, but that game sparked something inside Puckett that has carried him through the rest of the season.
“He had some adversity, gave up a few runs,” Garza said, “but he put his foot down and really started to trust himself and took the bull by the horns. In my opinion, he hasn’t really looked back from that.”
Puckett is currently riding a 54.2-inning stretch in which he has not given up an earned run. His 1.01 earned run average is the lowest in the West Coast Conference. Puckett is also tied for second in wins (7), has the third-most strikeouts (75), has pitched the most innings (71) and holds the lowest opponent batting average (.189) in the league.
Those statistics have led to Puckett being named WCC Player of the Week for two consecutive weeks. He is also put on the National Pitcher of the Year watch list by the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
However, Puckett’s first two years pitching for the Waves were much more humble. As a sophomore, he recorded a 4.35 ERA, and by his own admission, often tried to force the issue while on the mound. At times, he tried to strike out every batter rather than feeling the game out.
But while playing some summer ball for the Chatham Anglers, a Cape Cod League team in Massachusetts, he got a little help from his friend: junior catcher Aaron Barnett.
Puckett said Barnett talked to him over the summer about staying within himself and letting the game come to him. That advice, coupled with pointers from Garza and his usual relentless work ethic, helped Puckett strike a balance on the mound.
“You don’t need to do more than A.J., because A.J.’s plenty,” Barnett said he told Puckett over the summer.
As a result, Puckett has put some more speed on his fastball, found strikes more often with off-speed pitches and is generally giving batters fits while at the plate.
But Puckett’s work ethic or talent is nothing new — he’s been winning pitching awards since his high school days at De La Salle. What’s different about him this year has been his mental approach to the game, which is at an all-time high.
“You just look at him and there’s just that confidence and swagger and intent, and you know he’s going to get guys out and he knows he’s going to get guys out,” Barnett said. “He gets out there, he gets on the mound and it’s all attack mode. If anything happens, he just brushes it off and gets right back to it.”
Waves head coach Rick Hirtensteiner pointed to some finer details in Puckett’s pitching mechanics — particularly his leg kick — that have contributed to his stellar season.
“His delivery and his motion was a little bit difficult to control [and repeat],” Hirtensteiner said. “His windup is a little bit more compact now. He doesn’t have quite as high a leg kick, and he’s able to repeat his delivery. That’s been a huge thing. That’s given him consistency.”
Garza said Puckett has all the intangibles and a high motor, which keeps his intensity, focus and energy high. His offseason work, training regiment and phenomenal pitching culminated in a complete-game shutout against the Portland Pilots on April 22.
Puckett’s no-earned-runs streak almost came to an end recently when an opponent hit the ball up the middle with a runner on second. Pepperdine’s center fielder made a throw to the first baseman, who then threw to Barnett, who made the play at home plate and saved a sure run.
That play proved that while Puckett’s star is on the rise at the mound, he doesn’t get nearly as much recognition without his defense making big plays.
“The whole scoreless streak would be nothing unless they got that guy out at home,” Puckett said.
The pitching phenom still has one more year of improvement left at Pepperdine. One can only imagine how much more he’ll dominate the WCC next season.
Waves Insider is a monthly column offering an in-depth look at Pepperdine sports. Assistant Editor Alex Vejar covers high school sports, education and anything in between for the Malibu Surfside News. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexVReporting.