Science Hill’s Matt Pope and Heath Lloyd were bordering on giddy when thinking about their baseball futures Wednesday.
Lloyd signed with Tennessee and Pope signed to play at Kentucky.
Lloyd, who’s expected to play shortstop and start once a week or close on the mound as a senior for the Hilltoppers, made a smooth transition after transferring from Providence Academy for the 2011 season. He was third among Hilltoppers in hitting (.409), tied for second in runs (43 in 40 games), tied for third in RBIs (40) and second in doubles (14) and stolen bases (9-for-9). Loyd played a variety of positions, and made a running over-the-shoulder catch in center field at Cardinal Park that would’ve made Willie Mays smile. Lloyd was also an effective pitcher, going 4-1 with a 2.71 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 202â„3 innings.
“The thing about Heath is he’s just played so much baseball against high-level competition that it just seemed like the better the pitchers were, the better he was as a hitter,” Science Hill coach Ryan Edwards said. “And it seemed like the tougher the pressure situation, the better he was. And he’s a leader by his work ethic.”
Pope, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound right-hander, caught Kentucky’s eye — and a lot of others — with weekend performances this fall at Tusculum and in Nashville with Kansas City Royals scout Sean Gibbs’ team.
Pope topped out in the low 90s, and his fastballs have a lot of movement. Pope made considerable progress after an inconsistent junior season, and Edwards said Pope, also a defensive end in football, was able to showcase his improved skills recently thanks to commendable cooperation from football coach Stacy Carter.
“If he didn’t get seen this fall I didn’t know if anybody would recognize what Kentucky obviously saw,” Edwards said. “I really appreciate Stacy letting him do that. He went to Tusculum one weekend this fall and word started spreading and my phone started ringing. And then Sean Gibbs invited him down … and he went to Nashville and did even better.”
Pope sounds like he’s still taking it all in after getting a large offer from an SEC school.
“It was life-changing pretty much,” Pope said. “I’ve never felt anything like it before. … I’m glad that Heath was signing the same day. That was cool.”
Loyd isn’t sure how cool it’d be to step in the batter’s box against Pope next week, let alone at the next level. Loyd’s partly ribbing and mostly serious in saying that while Pope has dialed in his command (a wider stance suggested by Gibbs has helped), his stature, velocity and movement will always essentially make him effectively wild.
“If I’m ever in the game and I see that there’s a 6-foot-6, 215-pound right-hander from Johnson City, Tennessee warming up in the bullpen,” Loyd said, “the first thing I’m gonna think is ‘I pray to God he doesn’t hit me,’ and the second thing I’m gonna think is ‘Try to hit something that doesn’t move as much as all his other pitches.’ Everything he throws has different movement, and he throws very hard.
“Matt’s a great guy; he’s a good sport about it. He knows he’s a little wild. People get scared when comes in the game, and they should. I mean he’s a pretty intimidating guy. Kids are already out of the batter’s box before the pitch is even thrown.”
Pope showed flashes last year against quality lineups such as Dobyns-Bennett and Bearden.
“Heath and (Hilltoppers catcher) Jackson Reid were talking about how those Bearden kids still talk about facing Matt,” Edwards said. “They said that was the toughest kid they had to step in the box against all year. Matt pitched really well against Bearden.”
Pope closed out a victory against hard-hitting D-B.
“I don’t know that we had anyone else available that night — because D-No (Daniel Norris) had started — that was gonna stop D-B’s offense,” Edwards said. “D-No had left the game on pitch-count reasons with the lead, but that was the game that ended up, like, 5 to 4. Matt went out there in the sixth inning and put out the fire and went out in the seventh and shut the door on them. That was a glimpse of what he could do, because those guys could flat hit, and so could Bearden.”
So could Loyd, although he wasn’t certain shortly before his first season after transferring from the small private school.
“In the preseason I was a little iffy about how I was gonna perform at the plate,” Loyd said. “My dad (Steve) talked to me and gave me some confidence. He said ‘All you need to do is go up there and don’t think about it, just see it and hit it.’”
Loyd voiced appreciation for God, his family, seven years with pitching instructor Danny Clark and 11 school years at Providence, but said playing at Science Hill with talented players such as Norris, who got a $2 million bonus this summer for signing with Toronto, enhanced his visibility.
“The name ‘Science Hill’ and wearing that hat, I mean people know who you are,” Loyd said. “That definitely helps to already be known before you step on the field.”
Loyd visited UT this fall, and it was hard to keep from smiling while touring the plush facilities. He isn’t sure where he’ll settle in with new Volunteers coach Dave Serrano.
“Coach Serrano feels that if you can play shortstop in high school, you can play anywhere on the field,” Loyd said. “I think he sees me and most of the other people in the recruiting class just as utility guys and we’ll work in wherever we can, and I’m perfectly fine with that.”
Pope and Loyd officially signed last week, but it didn’t seem real until the ceremony Wednesday.
“Today it definitely hit me that this is a big step in my life,” Loyd said. “It was pretty amazing … and really nerve-racking. It’s amazing to think of having somebody like Matt — it’s almost surreal to think we’re going to be playing each other for the next four years.”