TAMPA -- As USF's closer, senior right-hander Kevin Quackenbush has been dominant in finishing off wins for the Bulls this season, ranking among the top relievers in the nation, with a miniscule 0.89 ERA that ranks as the best by any pitcher in USF history.
Six months ago, he didn't know if he'd ever have the opportunity to play baseball again.
"Definitely, there was a time when I didn't think I was ever going to play again," the 22-year-old said Wednesday, preparing for USF's final series of the regular season. "I made a mistake. I learned from it. I definitely appreciate baseball a lot more now. It's definitely a privilege to play."
Quackenbush's success this season is a story in second chances, in an athlete making a major mistake off the field but working to prove himself again, as being the best thing a reliever can aspire to be: reliable.
"With everything he went through in the fall, I would have never dreamed it would turn out the way it has," Bulls coach Lelo Prado said. "He has to take a lot of the credit. He has been a man about it, took responsibility for his actions. He's always done the right thing. ... This was the first time he's ever messed up, in school, anything. Was it a messup? Yes, a big one. I joke with him, 'You decided to hit a home run on your first and only screwup.'"
Early on the morning of Oct. 31, Quackenbush was arrested near USF's campus on a felony count of leaving the scene of an accident with injury. According to police, Quackenbush hit a marked police car with his Dodge Ram at 2:59 a.m., hard enough to flip the cruiser three times until it landed in a ditch. The officer suffered a laceration to his head, and Quackenbush continued home to his apartment, where he was arrested a half-hour later after admitting to police he didn't stop because he was "scared."
As part of a plea agreement reach in January, Quackenbush agreed to 100 hours of community service, four years of probation and $1,600 in court costs. He cannot consume alcohol as part of his agreement and is subject to random drug testing. If he upholds his end of the agreement, the probation can be ended early after two years and the charge dropped.
"If that court date turns just one little bit, he's out of school, out of everything, if that judge decides to throw him in jail," Prado said. "He got a second chance, and that's what you love to see: A guy understanding what he did was wrong and paying his dues."
Prado said he sees a new focus in Quackenbush, who led the Bulls in appearances last year but had a pedestrian 4.28 ERA and four saves. This year he has 12 saves, best in the Big East. His control has been impeccable, with 41 strikeouts against just six walks -- if he had enough innings to qualify, he would rank third in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings with 12.8 this season.
Quackenbush credits his improvements on the mound to new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, who has instilled confidence in him and a recognition of the benefits of first-pitch strikes. His fastball has been clocked at 95-96 mph and should be taken in next month's MLB draft, where he'll have a chance to continue his career in the minors. He graduated earlier this month with a degree in business management.
"He could pitch at High-A right now -- he's got great stuff, and he's going to have a great chance in pro ball to move up the ladder," Prado said. "The breaking ball is sharper and he's throwing it for strikes. Velocity's been there. If this team has 30-35 wins, he's up there in every category in the country."
Quackenbush, a Jesuit graduate before he came to USF, is grateful to be pitching this year, and hopeful USF can finish the regular season strong against Pittsburgh this weekend to earn a spot in next week's Big East tournament in Clearwater. Prado said he'll turn to his closer three days in a row if necessary, knowing if his team can't get wins this weekend, its season will be over.
Quackenbush has held opposing batters to a .121 batting average this season, but says he's a better pitcher -- and person -- because of a humility he's gained as a result of his off-season problems. He is eager for another chance to take the mound, to show Prado's faith in him is again the right decision.
"He's been great to me. I have to thank him for giving me a second chance," he said. "It definitely humbled me. I'm not invincible."
Posted by Greg Auman at 4:22:37 pm on May 19, 2011