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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Baseball

Junior closer has found his form


Junior Fred Villarreal has been the Cougars’ ace closer and loves being put into high-pressure situations. | Andres Chio/The Cougar

University of Houston baseball teams have been known for great pitching, but the Cougars lost a slew of pitchers to the major leagues after the 2018 season.

The team is still ironing out its full rotation, but one secure spot is top closer held by junior Alfredo “Freddy” Villarreal.

“Someone had to step up. Houston is known for our pitching always being top notch. I knew I had to work and keep striving for more,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal had to grow into his role as a closer, and he did not have the best 2018.

He started his year by tearing his serratus anterior muscle, a muscle on the side of the body along the rib cage, early last season and had to sit out for nearly half the year.

When he returned, he struggled with pitches and just did not feel himself, Villarreal said.

But, he was able to use the offseason to refine his game and has become one of the Cougars’ most reliable pitchers.

“Freddy gets more confident the more he goes out there. He has become what we thought he was going to be from day one when we recruited him,” said head coach Todd Whitting.

Villarreal played in 12 games in 2018 and gave up 11 earned runs in 22.1 innings pitched. He has already played in 16 games in 2019 and has thrown 31.2 innings with just five earned runs allowed for a 1.42 ERA.

“It’s just small adjustments and trying to work ahead of the count. That’s the main thing,” Villarreal said. “I’m just happy that now I’m 100 percent healthy. I get a chance to pitch now, and I feel great.”

His time as a closer has seen him earn a 2-1 win-loss record. He is tied for second in the conference with six saves, which means he has been thrown into sticky situations and closed the games out for a win.

The most saves of all Houston pitchers last season was six and Villarreal has tied that.

There have been just eight pitchers to have double digit saves in a season at Houston, with the record set at 15, and Villarreal is well on his way to joining that elite group.

“He’s done a tremendous job on the backside and just slams the door to get us wins,” Whitting said.

It is not an easy role to take on, but Villarreal has shown ability and poise under the microscope.

“I mean it’s hard, but at the same time I love closing. It’s fun to be put on the spot, and I love the pressure,” Villarreal said.

The pressure will only continue to build as the Cougars fight to improve in conference play.

Houston is down near the bottom of the conference standings early in the season and will need to start turning things around before the situation becomes dire.

Though the Cougars’ conference trajectory remains uncertain, the team knows who it trust to close games.

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