Clinton Freeman is back in the bullpen and it’s like he never left.
The East Tennessee State baseball team’s all-around star struggled as a starting pitcher earlier in the season, but he’s in more familiar territory now and he’s beginning to flourish again.
Freeman remains the Bucs’ top hitter, and now he’s helping them win games with his arm.
Along the way, he credits so many people for his success, you’d think he’s not doing any of this himself. There’s pitching coach Kyle Bunn getting him ready to close a game, assistant coach Xan Barksdale helping his approach at the plate, freshman pitcher Austin Hutchison taking over the Friday night starter role so Freeman can be in the bullpen, and bullpen catcher Brandon Wilson for making sure he gets warmed up properly.
Freeman (0-3) began the season as the Bucs’ No. 1 starter. The senior lefty was the losing pitcher in all three of his starts and posted an ERA of 6.89 in those games.
“He’s our best arm and we tried to get him out there in a starting role,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “It’s just something very difficult for anybody to do. You have to prepare all week as a starter. In your mind, you know you’re gonna log 90 to 110 pitches and it’s very taxing on you mentally as well as physically.”
Hutchison, a freshman from Jefferson County, has taken over Freeman’s spot in the rotation. He’s 2-1 with a team-leading 2.97 ERA after pitching a complete game in the Bucs’ Atlantic Sun Conference opener on Friday night, a 7-4 victory over Stetson.
Meanwhile, in six relief appearances since his three starts, Freeman has returned to form with an ERA of 2.79 and four saves.
“I can start and help us out, but I think coming out of the pen helps us,” said Freeman, a David Crockett High School graduate. “Austin Hutchins has done a great job for us on Friday night so that lets me approach hitting better. Also the time I have with Coach Bunn, coming out of the pen works better. I know I can start any time we need it and I can have a quality start.”
Freeman’s bullpen success shouldn’t come as a surprise. Last season he was one of the most effective relievers in the A-Sun, going 7-1 with eight saves. Twenty-two of his 25 appearances came in relief.
“He’s great out of the pen,” Skole said. “I think he relishes it. I think he likes being in the game and coming in in those situations.”
Pitching is really Freeman’s secondary contribution to the team. He’s been ETSU’s leading hitter for two seasons and recently got the 200th hit of his career. He’s hitting .358 with 22 RBIs while serving as the team’s starting first baseman. He’s also played left field this season.
In Saturday’s doubleheader against Stetson, Freeman was hitless in the opener before getting two solid hits in the second game as the Bucs salvaged a split with a 4-3 victory.
“You just have to keep fighting,” he said. “Coach Barksdale, before the second game, really got me back on track just telling me to stay aggressive in the box. Just him talking to me like that may have won a ballgame for us. I give a lot of credit to him.”
There are times when Freeman’s two roles conflict. In Saturday’s nightcap victory, he scored what turned out to be the winning run on Dylan Tritsch’s two-run single in the seventh inning. He barely slowed down after touching the plate before heading to the bullpen. He warmed up quickly before taking the mound and earning a two-inning save.
“As soon as I touched home plate, they were telling me to get ready,” Freeman said. “I’ve got Brandon Wilson, one of the best teammates on this team, the bullpen catcher. He gets some at-bats, but he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for getting me and whoever else comes out of the pen ready.”
ETSU (11-12 overall, 2-1 A-Sun) was supposed to play at Appalachian State on Wednesday, but that game was postponed until April 2 because of lingering snow in Boone, N.C. The Bucs play host to Northern Kentucky in a three-game conference series this weekend at Thomas Stadium, beginning Friday at 7:05 p.m. Saturday’s game is set for 2:05 and Sunday’s is 1:05.comments powered by Disqus