#TGW: Just Xzay’in’
Georgia Tech baseball's freshman Friday night starter Xzavion Curry has the right stuff for any age
by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Xzavion Curry is proof you don’t need to be big -- he’s listed at 5-10, 185 -- to dream big and one by one he’s making them come true.
He accomplished one by coming to Georgia Tech, something he knew he wanted to do since he was 13, when he met Georgia Tech head coach Danny Hall -- Xzavion and Hall’s son Carter, currently a sophomore infielder for the Yellow Jackets -- were teammates.
“My dad and I both leaned toward this school and you can’t beat the academics,” he said. “So the academics plus the baseball team, it just felt like the right fit. And it’s in Atlanta, where I grew up.”
Xzavion and his dad, Reggie, who played football at Clemson and South Carolina State, got to live another dream one week ago on Friday afternoon against Brigham Young University, when he became the first true freshman since Georgia Tech Hall of Famer Kris Wilson in 1995 to start a Georgia Tech season opener.
“I didn’t know that until my dad told me after the game was over,” Curry said. “I was kind of shocked to hear that.”
He harbors another dream that might shock anyone who has ever batted against him.
“I always used to say, ‘I want to face myself as a hitter,’” he said. “I want to be in the batter’s box with me on the mound because I really wonder what makes my stuff so great that nobody likes facing me.”
There are plenty of BYU hitters that can answer for him, following Curry’s masterful five-shutout-inning debut, during which he allowed five hits, struck out five, and walked one, throwing 50 of his 75 pitches for strikes.
The Cougars learned what the Yellow Jackets knew all along and what the Penguins of Youngstown State are scheduled to find out Friday at 4 p.m. in the opener of their weekend series.
“I like that he competes and he commands,” said Tech pitching coach Jason Howell. “He’s going to attack you in the strike zone. Everything looks hard coming at the hitter, everything is coming out of the same arm-slot, with the same type of intent and intensity. His stuff is good but when you do things like that it actually doesn’t have to be as good. To put everything coming out of the same window and with good stuff, it makes it hard to hit.
“He’s not afraid of who he’s facing,” Howell added. “We have a good lineup. We’ve shown that (Tech enters the weekend with six players hitting over .350). To compete against our guys helps him. To go out there as a freshman in his first outing and it not matter to him who steps in the box says a lot and that also says why he’s on Friday night.”
Against BYU, Curry simply pitched through whatever adversity surfaced, be it first-game jitters, a game-lead-off single, anything.
“When I first went out there I was kind of nervous. I think the first pitch I threw was a strike so that kind of calmed my nerves,” the Mays High School star recalled. “When [shortstop Daniel Schneeman] got a hit I was like, ‘He got a hit. Whatever.’ I think that kind of brought me to reality. ‘This is baseball. There’s another guy at the plate and you have to prove to yourself that you’re better than him.’ I just kind of took that mentality and started going to work.”
He’d retire the next three hitters. He also kept his stressful pitches low. While he’d pitch from the stretch in every inning, only in the second did he do so with fewer than two out and he didn’t allow another leadoff hitter to reach. BYU went 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position, and that hit actually resulted in an out, thanks to left fielder Chase Murray and catcher Joey Bart, who teamed up for an inning-ending 7-2 putout.
Curry can stay cool and in control.
“I don’t really show my emotions, if I’m mad or if I’m excited. So keeping my emotions inside is kind of easy,” he said. “On Friday, I almost let them get out. When Chase threw the guy out, of course, my emotions came out then.”
The play came with two outs in the third, on what proved to be the only back-to-back hits and consecutive baserunners Curry allowed. The single to left followed a double. Murray charged, came up throwing and fired a strike to Bart for the putout that preserved Tech’s 1-0 lead.
“For a pitcher, when you see the defense make a play like that, that lets you know you can trust your defense,” Curry said. “That’s a visual representation of ‘We’ve got your back.’ To see Chase make that play, I was excited.”
Curry, who came out for the fourth up 3-0, allowed only a pair of two-out hits over his final two innings and handed a 5-0 lead to the bullpen, which did its job and got him his first college win.
He’d earned it, mercilessly pounding the strike zone. He threw only 22 pitches all day from behind in the count -- firing 16 of those for strikes, and made only six pitches in three-ball counts, throwing five of those for strikes.
It all looked very familiar to his teammates, who gladly got to see other teams leave at-bats as vexed as they did during the fall.
“I think it’s because he gets out there, he’s not the tallest guy that’s ever going to be on the mound and he throws so hard. It’s sneaky fast. Before you know it the ball’s on you,” said fellow freshman and starting shortstop Austin Wilhite, one of five of Curry’s teammates on the 2016 Connie Mack World Series Champion East Cobb Yankees -- Curry, by the way, was the Connie Mack World Series MVP and a Connie Mack World Series Gold Glove Award winner. “Over the summer, whenever he pitched there were a lot of strikeouts, blowing balls by people. Then coming out here, the way he carried himself, he was very confident. Even if he didn’t have a good outing he just said, ‘Whatever. I’ll get out there next time.’ I think that approach has helped him a lot.”
“I’m certainly glad I’m on his team,” said outfielder Kel Johnson, breaking into a big laugh. “Facing him in our intrasquad scrimmages was always a great challenge for me because he is very effective. I think he’s a great pitcher. He has a live arm. I think he’ll do well for us.”
Curry passed his first test on the mound with the same flying colors that he did his first tests in academically during his first semester and the same way, through hard work.
“The first semester, I was studying more, having to put time and effort into academics, having to go to study hall, meet with your professors, meet with tutors, just to learn the criteria of each class,” he said. “I finished with a 3.6. I feel like I managed it well enough.”
With one start in the books, Curry’s now eager to manage through the next one. He’s not looking any further than YSU. He knows the ACC is out there, starting March 10 in Miami, but he can wait.
“I’m not overlooking any team that we face on Friday,” he said. “So I’m just taking it one Friday at a time. Whatever team is in the other dugout, that’s the team I’m facing.”
Curry’s even getting used to weaning himself off playing shortstop, fighting off the urge to field grounders in practice.
“It’s kind of hard,” he said, with a laugh. “I remember, I think two days after I first found out I was going to pitch Friday, I went out there to take ground balls and Coach (Prince) hit me one ball. I fielded it and he was like, ‘Xzay, get outta’ there.’ It’s kind of routine to just go and take some ground balls but I’m fine with not taking any.”
Hall is fine with THAT approach.
“[Xzavion] could be valuable to us in the infield if somebody gets hurt but right now I’m treating him like I treated Brandon Gold last year in that he’s going to be a primary pitcher,” he said. “He takes batting practice every day but I’m kind of keeping those ground balls away from him right now.”
Howell, himself a two-way player at North Carolina (pitcher and first, RF and DH) doesn’t see any problems in striking the proper balance with Curry.
“Brandon [Gold] did a great job with that, Zane (Evans) did it, (Matt) Wieters, Daniel Palka, we’ve had success with two-way guys here, it’s not really anything unusual for us,” he said. “Xzavion’s adopting well. He’s been a great team guy as far as that goes.”
Curry’s now locked in on being a great Friday night pitcher.
“I’ve got to focus on the bigger picture of what the coaching staff and the team needs me to do on the mound on Friday night,” he said. “It’s honestly a lot of hard work. Just the mindset of going on the mound on Friday night, I know being the Friday night guy, that’s a big job and I’m here to take the role.”