Nitro's Korey Dunbar, who carries a 4-2 record and 0.53 ERA, is expected to get the start when the Wildcats face Fairmont Senior in the state tournament this week.
A couple weeks ago, a reporter was kidding around with Korey Dunbar, Nitro's all-stater and major league catching prospect.
"I heard you're doing so well with your pitching that you're going to try that in college,'' the reporter said.
Dunbar, who has already signed with North Carolina, opened his eyes wide in astonishment.
"No . . . oh God, no,'' he said, then shaking his head in disbelief. "I'm a catcher.''
After what he's pulled off in one year's time, though, you couldn't help but wonder if Dunbar could actually do it. Because he's sure caught on to this pitching thing.
As Nitro prepares for a sixth straight appearance in the Class AAA state baseball tournament this week at Appalachian Power Park, Dunbar has morphed into the Wildcats' ace pitcher.
Coach Steve Pritchard has already decided that Dunbar (4-2, 0.53 ERA) will start on the mound against top-ranked Fairmont Senior (28-7) in the state semifinals at approximately 7:15 p.m. Friday.
In short, Dunbar gives the Wildcats their best chance to advance to the championship game, even though his future is behind the plate instead of firing pitches toward it.
"I don't think we'd be in the state tournament the last two years without Korey pitching,'' Pritchard said. "I think I can safely say that without insulting anyone or stepping on anyone's toes.''
Consider it an experiment that succeeded - but succeeded, perhaps, is too mild a word. Try exploded.
Dunbar came into last year's postseason having thrown just 11 innings all year. Consider that his previous experience on the mound before that was in Little League, and you see what a quantum leap it was.
When Dunbar came to Nitro's rescue by firing a five-hit complete game for the victory in the regional finals against heavily-favored Cabell Midland, Pritchard knew he had something special. Dunbar was called upon to pitch again in the Wildcats' state tournament loss to Jefferson.
"It's kind of funny,'' Pritchard recalled. "Last year before the state tournament, Korey's working out in practice, throwing 87, 88 [miles an hour] and our pitching coach, Dave Sneed, is so excited. 'I get a pitcher to work with fulltime,' he told me.
"I told him, 'Coach, he's a catcher. As soon as next season's over, he's going to leave for North Carolina, and he won't pitch an inning down there, so don't get too excited.'''
But despite their protestations, both Pritchard and Dunbar seemed to have caught the bug. Last February, Dunbar couldn't wait to tell Pritchard that he'd developed a new pitch - a slider.
"Obviously we're biased,'' Pritchard said, "but when we saw that, I said now we've got the best catcher in the state, the best hitter in the state and the best pitcher in the state.''
With his program having to replace eight starters, Pritchard couldn't resist the temptation of throwing Dunbar into the fire this season as a pitcher, often at the expense of limiting his innings behind the plate even as scouts showed up at most games to watch him catch.
The initial plan was to bring Dunbar in late as a fireballing reliever to close out games. That tactic worked again last week in the regional semifinals when he threw 31/3 hitless innings of relief and picked up the win against Parkersburg South.
However, Nitro needed Dunbar to start again in the regional finals - and he again answered the call. He pitched a nine-inning three-hitter with 10 Ks as the Wildcats outlasted Winfield 3-1.
Dunbar, who has now fanned 86 in just 53 innings, again showed Pritchard a little something extra during a warm night in Winfield.
"In the regional, he threw more submarine and sidearm pitches than he's thrown all year,'' Pritchard said. "I know he was tired because the heat was getting to him, but he showed them another pitch. He's developed into a good pitcher. Last year it was more you didn't ever know where the ball was coming from.
"I'd say he and J.R. [Bradley, another pro prospect] are the only two pitchers in my 19 years that when they get a 3-0 count on a hitter, I'm very confident they can come back and strike the guy out. Korey's control is amazing. We never feel we have to give in. He struck out a kid on a 3-2 slider. Coach Sneed says that's what you can do when you've got a pitcher on the mound - you don't have to give in. That's what Korey gives us.
"He's one of the best players I've had the privilege of coaching. It's hard to say he's the best, because I don't want to slight anybody. But he's one of the best.''
Still swinging away
Dunbar's flip-flopping between the mound and the plate may have held up games as he switches gear with sophomore Ryan McDonough (who catches when Dunbar pitches), but it certainly hasn't hurt his hitting.
He's been on a tear in recent weeks, raising his batting average to .462 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. Two of his roundtrippers have come in the postseason.
"The main thing [scouts do] is watch him hit,'' Pritchard said. "If you watch the [West Virginia] Power players, Korey's bigger than their guys now. He came to Nitro at 135 pounds, and he's leaving at 215. There's not a lot of catchers who can hit. That's really more or less where his stock lies.
"He's the guy who's at the weight room when you open it up and he's the guy you have to run off in the evening so you can go eat dinner. He's done everything he can possibly do to be the player he is as far as physical development.''
Dunbar said if the new position caused any problem with his hitting, it was purely temporary.
"I think maybe toward the beginning of the season, I was trying to press too much and do a little too much,'' he said. "I think from the middle to the end of the season, I've been hitting the ball real hard.
"I separate the two parts of the game. Just because it's a strikeout or whatever happens on offense, you've got to play defense. You've got to have sandpaper skin. That's kind of how I look at things. In baseball, you fail most of the time. It's a game of failure. That's how I view the game.''
A different perspective
If nothing else, Dunbar now understands some nuances of the game more after taking the hill as a pitcher.
"It's a different world out on the mound,'' he said. "You're out there all alone with the thoughts in your head. You kind of bring that into your catching mentality. When the pitcher is struggling and you go out to talk to him, you know what to say to him. You know how to deal with that. That part of the game is easier.''
So does Dunbar view himself as a pitcher now - something he never would have done in the past?
"I don't know. To me, I'm always going to be a catcher,'' he said. "The pitching, I'm where I'll do anything to help my team. I've committed myself to that. I bought in, and I would say I've developed a little bit of a pitcher's mentality. I see where they come from now, and I've incorporated that into my catching game.
"It's something where I've matured all together as an all-around player. I kind of understand the game so much more to where I really have a passion. Not that I didn't have it last year, but more so this year. I understand how it works and what I have to do to become successful. It's a new challenge. Other than that, it's been a ride.''
Pritchard always knew Dunbar was competitive. But after seeing him work in last week's regionals - in which Dunbar threw 121/3 of the team's 16 innings in a span of a little over 48 hours - Nitro's coach realized how much of Dunbar's bulldog mentality comes out in his pitching.
"The other night out at Hurricane [in the semifinals],'' Pritchard said, "I looked out to the bullpen in the bottom of the sixth inning, and Korey is out there warming up [even though he was already pitching]. I said, 'Korey, you all right?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm just getting ready for all seven innings [in the finals].' He started in the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday to get ready for Thursday.''
McDonough, the team's No. 2 pitcher, marveled at how Dunbar - the team's lone senior - bounced back to work nine innings against Winfield after the short turnaround.
"Korey pitched just an amazing game,'' McDonough said. "You just can't say enough about Korey. I don't know anybody else who can do that. He's done that all of his starts. Every single start, he just keeps bringing it up there. Nobody has scored more than one earned run off this guy.''
Pritchard has heard a lot of major league teams express an interest in selecting Dunbar during next month's first-year player draft, but has no idea where he'll go or in what round.
"I've heard everything from the supplemental picks that come between rounds one and two,'' Pritchard said, "as far back as the fifth round.''
Pritchard doesn't think Dunbar's odyssey on the mound has stunted his growth or development as a catcher.
"At the end of the day, he's going to go catch somewhere,'' Pritchard said. "Some of the teams don't really care if he pitches. Some would rather not see him pitch. Other teams said it helped him rise on their boards that he can pitch. With about 30 teams, there are 30 different responses to it.
"The Angels came in over the sectionals with their top hitting guy in the organization and he didn't care if [Dunbar] DH'd, played right field or we got him off the parking lot and let him hit. Hal Morris [formerly of the Reds and now scouting director of the Angels] wasn't interested in watching him pitch at all. He wanted to see him catch. The Braves and some other teams wanted to watch him pitch.
"When the state tournament's over, he may never pitch again. Of course, some people who get drafted and can't hit at that level - and the fact they could throw 92, 93 someday - might make teams make a pitcher out of him before the release him. But with Korey, the only time he's going to step on the mound after he leaves our level will be to talk to the pitcher.''
Dunbar, likewise, doesn't feel like pitching hurts his draft status.
"It helps me tremendously in two aspects,'' he said. "One, they can see my arm's strong, and the biggest thing is they get to see me compete. See my athleticism, I guess.
"Like I said, I'll do anything it takes for us to win a game. That's kind of what I've incorporated into my mentality in my four years here at Nitro. It's helped me become the ballplayer and person I am today.''
Dunbar doesn't anticipate the drafting process to be easy, or even a certainty. He said if he doesn't hear what he wants, he'll head for the Tar Heels program.
"Teams need to get their stories straight for what they're going to do in the draft as far as the collective bargaining agreement,'' he said. "If someone tells you what round you'll go in, they're pretty much lying to you.
"If there was a certain way to do things in the draft one day and it was mapped out, it would be a completely easy process. But it's not. It will be a difficult decision, but if I don't get what I want out of that, I'll go down and play three, four years of college ball.''
With Dunbar's all-around talent, Pritchard knows he could take several different paths to future success, but he's glad the last four years worked out the way they have.
"He could pitch in the West Virginia Conference right now on a full ride, and he could hit, too,'' Pritchard said. "On the other side of the coin, he came to Nitro because of the academics and the other things - and to catch. Korey plays baseball to catch. It gets him to do what he wants to do at the next level. It's a commitment he made to us of time and effort, and the same commitment we made back to him.
"It would have been a lot easier this year to stick Ryan back behind the plate and let Korey play shortstop and pitch. We probably would have won a few more games, maybe not. It would have been a good infield with Korey at shortstop. But his next level's at catching. Whatever it means for Nitro, that's what it means for him.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com