TAMPA — He is young, he is skinny, and he is dominating.
As the USF baseball team chases its first NCAA regional appearance since 2002, much of its optimism starts with freshman pitcher Jimmy Herget, who has fearlessly embraced his role as No. 1 starter.
"It's a little nerve-racking that they're going to rely on a freshman," the 6-foot-3, 165-pound right-hander from Jefferson High says. "So far I've done a really good job of not letting it get to me at all, of just going out there and having no emotion, just going out there and doing it."
Herget, 19, is 5-2 and leads Big East pitchers with a 1.66 earned-run average, and he'll have the mound in his hometown Thursday as the Bulls (33-19, 15-6 Big East) finish the regular season with a three-game series against Rutgers.
USF was in first place in the conference for much of this season, but it will be seeded between second and fifth for next week's Big East tournament in Clearwater.
"The best thing about Jimmy is he competes," said first-year Bulls pitching coach Lance Carter, a former Rays closer. "He really believes he's going to be successful, and that's translated to the success he's had.
"I don't think anything really stirs him up or makes him get nervous. The kid's been tremendous for us, and he's going to have to continue to be tremendous for us to have a chance at making a big run."
Herget was initially penciled in as the closer this season, but as Carter points out, "You've got to be able to get to the end of the game to close games out." Opponents are hitting .184 against him overall and .169 in Big East play, where he has helped the Bulls to a 15-6 conference record.
Coach Lelo Prado says he needs more Hergets — more top local recruits who choose the Bulls over not only other schools but the lure of pro contracts. USF risked losing Herget to the pros, an option he considered strongly between the end of his senior season and the draft in June.
"It was a big possibility," he said. "It was a real good possibility the second day of the draft. (Atlanta) called me up around the 13th round, and I told them I wasn't ready. 'I'm going to go to college. Hopefully, I'll see you in three years.' "
The Braves took a flier on Herget anyway, drafting him in the 40th and final round, hoping to make an offer that would change his mind. His answer didn't change, much to Prado's delight.
"To throw him in there on Fridays (as No. 1) and have him do what he's done is unbelievable," said Prado, who likens Herget to former Bulls ace Randy Fontanez, now a Mets prospect.
"Guys that turn down money out of high school are what turn your program around. Eventually we want to get to a point where every kid we get has a chance of being drafted and turns it down to get an education."
Herget said part of his decision was a desire to stay in his hometown, to pitch where his friends and family could watch him. He took a trip to Florida State, but that only reinforced his decision.
"I knew that this was the place," he said.
USF stumbled last weekend, getting swept at Seton Hall, but the Bulls can help their case for an NCAA tournament at-large bid with a strong showing against Rutgers. The easiest route to the NCAAs is to win the Big East tournament and the automatic berth that comes with it.
Prado is excited about Herget's future. Herget has agreed to not pitch this summer and instead spend the next few months in the weight room, adding muscle to make him that much better as a sophomore.
"Once that kid gains 10, 15 pounds, look out," Prado said. "He's going to get bigger and stronger, and the experience he's getting right now, there's not many freshmen around the country that pitch on Friday nights.
"We're not close to being done. We've got to finish the job."