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HOUSTON -- Standing on the mound, Rice pitcher Ryan Berry appears to be out of his element.
|Ryan Berry's unique delivery and competitiveness on the mound differentiate him from most pitchers.|
Rice beat writers have taken to referring to him as "The Chemist" because Berry looks like he would be more comfortable mixing compounds and polymers in the school's laboratory than switching speeds with his pitches. Some of his teammates chide him because of his unique appearance on the hill.
But that's where looks can deceive. Berry's fiery competitive nature and one of the most wicked curveballs in college baseball have helped make him one of the nation's top collegiate pitching talents. Even if he doesn't necessarily appear to be central casting's answer to the next Nuke LaLoosh.
"I know I don't look like the most imposing pitcher out there," Berry said. "But I just try to go out and do my job and not worry about anything."
Large, old-school eyeglasses, baseball pants that bunch just below his knees and his unusual trait of sticking out his tongue during each delivery give him a stylistic appearance that's not found many places.
"You could call him a geek, but it works for him," Rice catcher Adam Zornes said. "Teams come out and wonder if he's for real. And then he strikes them out."
The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder has become a darling of the fans at Rice's Reckling Park; they chant his name, "Ry-an Ber-ry," in key stretches of his home starts. And they have had a lot of chances to serenade him during his short career with the Owls.
Berry is hoping to continue his strong work after a breakout freshman performance as the Owls' Friday starter for most of last season, when he earned Collegiate Baseball's freshman pitcher of the year award.
"It was an amazing experience, what I was able to accomplish last season," Berry said. "And I'd just like to keep building on that this year."
His first two 2008 starts continued the previous year's success; he pitched a streak of 11 1/3 scoreless innings before yielding his first run of the season.
"I've been working on getting back my fastball," Berry said. "I've worked hard at bringing back the intensity I had last season and just trying to add to it."
Professional scouts have compared him to former big league standout Orel Hershiser, who carved out an 18-year major league career with superlative stuff and a similarly strong mound presence.
"He's crafty; he nibbles on the corners and has different stuff he likes to throw," Zornes said. "Ryan likes to change angles and work in and out to pitches. You can definitely say he's like Orel in that regard."
Berry effectively switched speeds and had command of his pitches during a 7-2 victory over Oklahoma in last weekend's Houston College Classic. He said after the game that it wasn't among his best.
After allowing three straight one-out singles against the Sooners, he recovered to strike out the next three batters and quell OU's rally.
Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway was impressed by how Berry handled the adversity.
"He's just outstanding. He makes it look so easy," Golloway said. "There's nothing fancy about his windup -- just boom, and the pitch is there. He locates everything and is just a special kind of pitcher."
Berry, Matt Langwell and Cole St. Clair provide three key weekend starters for what could be the nation's top pitching staff. Their continued development could boost the Owls into a legitimate contender for their third straight trip to the College World Series.
In the process, Berry is following in the footsteps of previous standout Rice pitchers who thrived under the tutelage of veteran coach Wayne Graham. The Owls made history in 2004 when pitchers Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend all were taken among the first eight picks of the Major League Baseball draft. Earlier top players like Norm Charlton and Kenny Baugh also developed at Rice.
"Coach Graham was the biggest reason I came to Rice," Berry said. "Seeing what he's been able to do with pitchers in the past was why I wanted to play at this school."
Truthfully, Berry didn't have many other options. After attending Humble High School in the Houston suburbs, he considered Lamar, Texas A&M and Dartmouth before deciding to stay relatively close to home.
|Rice coach Wayne Graham is known for his work with future pro pitchers.|
"If this hadn't worked out for me, I probably would have ended up going to an Ivy League school somewhere," Berry said. "That was my plan before everything worked out to send me here."
Graham saw something special while watching Berry pitch in high school.
"That's one of the great things about living in Houston, Texas," Graham said. "We can find talent where a lot of other people aren't looking. Ryan was a very good pitcher in high school, but because other teams were doing so well, not many people looked at him. He was a pitcher who had great command in high school."
Berry became an immediate contributor, earning respect from Graham's coaching staff and his teammates during fall practice. He emerged in his first work with the Owls, showing uncanny control while effectively alternating four pitches.
His early performance led Graham to call him the top freshman pitcher he had ever seen during his fall workouts. That's a pretty heady compliment from Graham, who has been a head coach at colleges and junior colleges for 28 seasons and who coached players like Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte earlier in his career.
"I knew he was going to pitch for us as soon as he started throwing," Graham said. "I knew he would be good."
And Berry lived up to those expectations once the season began, earning Conference USA's Freshman of the Year honors and a spot on the U.S. national team for postseason international action. He finished his freshman season with an 11-3 record and a 3.01 ERA. He struck out 125 batters in 122 2/3 innings and allowed only 34 walks -- an average of less than three walks per nine innings.
His development enabled him to make the rapid ascent from an untested neophyte to the opening day starting pitcher for the Owls in the College World Series.
"It wasn't really a surprise," Berry said. "But it wasn't anything that I really wanted to prove anybody wrong. I was just happy to have a chance and tried to make the most out of it. I had confidence I could play well if I just continued developing."
He's come back stronger for his sophomore season, relying more on a fastball that seems to have gotten nastier in his second college season.
"I think he's actually picked up a mile or two in his velocity," Graham said. "He's maturing. Everybody keeps looking for better command. I just want him to keep doing what he's doing."
And Ryan is determined to keep the same unaffected look on the mound, despite the frequent kidding of his teammates.
"Oakley offered him a deal to give him some more stylish, more modern glasses," Zornes said. "But he wanted to stay with his old big square ones that he's always used. We love him for that. He might look a little different than most pitchers, but Ryan is just a great competitor."
Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at email@example.com.