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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Baseball

Junior pitcher’s arm better than ever, leads team in ERA


Junior Aaron Fletcher was given a redshirt in his sophomore season due to injury, giving him an extra year of college eligibility. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

“Strike,” the umpire says as the ball sails inside the strike zone. It’s a pitch that junior Aaron Fletcher has thrown hundreds of times throughout his college and high school careers.

Fletcher’s next pitch is again inside, but the batter is ready. He hits it toward the shortstop, who promptly throws the batter out at first. It is a fine start to a historic day in Fletcher’s young career as a starter.

Two and a half hours and 106 pitches later, Fletcher finishes the first complete game of his career.

“It’s felt pretty good, the last couple outings I’ve gone up there. I haven’t thrown that many pitches since high school, so it feels pretty good,” Fletcher said after the game. 

It’s a position he may not have imagined himself in two years ago, when an injury shelved him for nearly a year.

Setback and return

Fletcher suffered an elbow injury in 2016 that required Tommy John surgery, a surgery that replaces a ligament in the arm.

“I’ve put in a lot of work. Everyday rehab for months on end after surgery. I was out 11 months,” Fletcher said. “It felt really good to be back on the field for the last two seasons.”

Recovery from a Tommy John surgery can take more than a year for some people, but the aftermath has left Fletcher and head coach Todd Whitting feeling better than before.

“He’s done great, he has no signs of any arm trouble at all,” Whitting said. “That surgery was a great thing for him, and he’s better now than before he got it.”

When Fletcher returned from the injury last season, he was slotted as a reliever and was the best pitcher out of the bullpen.

Fletcher threw in 21 games, earning eight saves, a 2-1 record and 2.40 ERA — better than any other reliever by a run.

As a result of his performance and continued recovery, Fletcher won himself a starting spot in the fall while the Cougars were preparing for this season.

Shifting gears

“Back in the fall, we kind of had him pegged as a starter. He came here as a starter and we thought it would be best to get him in that role, and I think he’s done really well,” Whitting said.

Fletcher was a standout pitcher at Langham Creek High School, where he went undefeated with a 1.54 ERA during his senior year.

During his freshman year at UH, Fletcher was one of the most called upon relievers and played in 21 games, with one save, a 2-1 record, and a 1.37 ERA.

The injury slowed Fletcher down, but he is now facing new challenges as a starter, with one of the biggest being internal.

“I just need to get myself calm in between starts because I’m so used to (as a reliever) going every other day and throwing. I’m just learning the routine and learning to calm down,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher’s approach has been successful this season, and he leads the starting pitchers with a .95 ERA, 4-0 record and zero allowed home runs so far.

On the field, the expectations of being a starter have come with more responsibility and accountability.

Learning new tricks

“I’ve learned how to work out of certain situations. As a reliever, when you get stuck on those, you kind of just get pulled so just learning to grind through tough situations,” Fletcher said.

An example of such tricky situations was when Houston faced the fifth inning against Memphis. The Tigers had a man on second and third, with two outs, while Houston had a two run lead. It was a chance for Memphis to tie the game, but Fletcher stayed composed and struck out the batter to secure Houston’s 2-0 lead.

“I work on my mindset as we go along. Coach really helps me, if he sees something, he lets me know and I just try to build week to week,” Fletcher said.

Houston’s next conference series starts Thursday against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Cincinnati, and the next home series starts Friday, April 6 against USF.

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