When a pitcher gives up a home run, the ball is the least of his concerns. Gone is gone. So he'll watch the hitter, to see if he pumps his fists excessively or otherwise acts in a manner that is less than classy. That way he can decide what sort of attitude he'll bring to the mound for the batter's next turn at the plate. But sometimes, the arc of the ball as it hurries over the outfield fence is such a thing of beauty that he cannot look away.
Such was the case in late February, when Monmouth University ace Pat Light took the mound for his second start of the year against the University of Virginia. He'd warmed up, only to sit through a 1-hour-12-minute rain delay. Then, in the bottom of the first with Monmouth up 2-0, fellow Jersey boy Stephen Bruno came to the plate for the Cavaliers. In high school, pitching for Christian Brothers Academy, Light did well against Bruno, a slugger for Gloucester Catholic.
Light figured he had things under control, so he let loose a 91 mph fastball, on the black, on the inside corner of the plate, thinking that Bruno would take the pitch for a certain strike. But Bruno was ready. "He turned on it, and it was a bomb," says Light. "It had to go 420 feet. I don't usually watch home runs, but I watched that one. And all I could think was: 'Wow. Good for you, sir.'"
And Light learned from his mistake: The next time Bruno came up, he got all sliders, down and away.
He knows to pace himself. He's very smart. He'll hang around the low 90s, and every now and then come back with a 96 or 97 just to say, 'Hey guys, I have it; I'm just not going to burn myself out.'
”-- A scout on Pat Light
The 6-5, 215-pound right-hander thinks his ability to move on after his missteps is one of his biggest strengths as a pitcher. "It's really tough to get me mad," he says. "If you get upset over every ball you throw, you're going to be in trouble. If I give up a home run, I either appreciate it, because, wow, that was really far, or I'm just like, Ahh, I could have made a better pitch."
And usually, he does, which is why Light was ranked No. 53 in Baseball America's preseason list of the Top 100 2012 draft prospects. And why the New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association tapped him as Pitcher of the Year. And why, in early May, he was named to the Golden Spikes Award watch list; the award is college baseball's Heisman, given to the best player in the game. Recent winners include Washington's Stephen Strasburg and San Francisco's Tim Lincecum.
Like those two, Light can bring the heat. His four-seam fastball has been clocked as high as 99 mph, and he supplements it with a solid slider that breaks down and away to righties, and a split-change that hovers in the upper 70s. Four of Light's 14 starts this season resulted in complete games, and he's shown he can manage that velocity for the long haul. "He knows to pace himself," says one scout. "He's very smart. He'll hang around the low 90s, and every now and then come back with a 96 or 97 just to say, 'Hey guys, I have it; I'm just not going to burn myself out.'"
But Light wasn't always so impressive on the radar gun. In high school, he was more of a sinker pitcher. He compiled a 20-0 record with a 1.52 ERA and was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 28th round of the 2009 MLB draft. But he wasn't good enough to be recruited by any college baseball powerhouses.
As a high school senior, Light's basketball team went to the finals of the state tournament. Its last basketball game was the night before Light's first pitching start. And his first start, on a chilly February afternoon in New Jersey, was the first day he threw at all. "It was cold and my shoulder tightened up a lot, but I just kept going," Light says. "My results were fine, but I just didn't throw as hard as I was hoping to that year. And because I didn't throw hard enough, people didn't recruit me."
Light had also heard stories from friends at big baseball schools like Vanderbilt and Stanford about pitchers who threw 95 mph but were sitting on the bench. So he landed at tiny Monmouth University, in Long Branch, N.J., whose claim to fame is that its Wilson Hall was used as Daddy Warbucks' mansion in the 1980 film version of "Annie." At Monmouth, Light got to pitch, a lot and right away. "I couldn't be happier with where I went," he says.
Monmouth coach Dean Ehehalt said his staff tried to keep things simple with Light from the start. "Instead of having him try to be really fine, throwing to the inside and outside corners, we just let his movement take over," says Ehehalt. "We told him to be down in the zone and to throw it the way he knows how. That was a really good recipe for him."
This season, Light had an 8-3 record. He threw 101⅓ innings with a 2.40 ERA and 102 strikeouts, giving up 84 hits and just 16 walks. At every one of his games, the seats behind home plate were packed with scouts and crosscheckers and radar guns. They've liked what they've seen; Light is projected as a potential first-round pick in next week's MLB draft.
"Pat's development has been consistent and significant every year," Ehehalt says. "It's easy to project that next year at this time, he'll be significantly better than he is now."
Which would be something to marvel at.