Five years later, 2017 USF baseball team boasts big-league pitching rotation

All three of the Bulls’ 2017 weekend starters have pitched in the majors this season.
Rays reliever Phoenix Sanders (80), who pitched at USF, posted a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings earlier this season.
Rays reliever Phoenix Sanders (80), who pitched at USF, posted a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings earlier this season. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published June 6, 2022

While this year’s USF baseball team (28-29) fell far short of replicating its surreal 2021 postseason run, the program still made history of another sort.

One just had to be a devout Bulls and/or Brewers fan to notice.

When right-hander Peter Strzelecki made his big-league debut for Milwaukee in the eighth inning of a dramatic win Thursday against the Pirates, the 2017 USF baseball weekend pitching rotation became immortalized.

All three members of that rotation — Strzelecki and Rays pitchers Shane McClanahan and Phoenix Sanders — now have pitched in the big leagues this season. Sanders also made his debut, as a Rays reliever, earlier this year.

That’s unprecedented for the same weekend staff in Bulls baseball lore, and so is this: Toss in Angels reliever Jimmy Herget and Padres reliever Austin Adams, and five former USF pitchers have worked in the big leagues this year, a school record for one season.

“It’s crazy,” said USF coach Billy Mohl, who never has had all three members of the same weekend rotation reach the majors in his 15 college seasons. “It’s crazy how good that 2017 team was. ... Almost everybody on that pitching staff got a taste of pro ball.”

Indeed, no fewer than six other pitchers on that Bulls staff — which led USF to a 42-19 record and an NCAA regional — reached some level of pro baseball. But Sanders (6-2, 2.78 ERA), McClanahan (4-2, 3.20) and Strzelecki (3-4, 2.42) combined for 45 of the team’s 61 starts.

Sanders was drafted by the Rays in the 10th round in 2017. McClanahan was taken by the Rays with a Round 1 compensatory pick the following year. Strzelecki was undrafted.

“To have three guys in the big leagues from that ‘17 team is pretty cool,” Mohl added.

Strzelecki, who struck out three and allowed an earned run in two innings in his debut, actually got the win Thursday as the Brewers rallied for four ninth-inning runs in a 5-4 triumph. The following day, he was optioned back to Triple-A Nashville to make room for left-hander Luke Barker.

His backstory remains arguably the most poignant of the trio. A USF signee out of Palm Beach State College, he missed the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, then lost his father, Kevin, to a heart attack during the 2017 season. Four nights after his dad’s death, Strzelecki started for USF, working 1⅔ innings in a come-from-behind win against Houston.

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“The injury’s what ultimately led to him showing up at school,” said Mohl, then USF’s pitching coach.

“I thought he was going to be a draft (pick) out of Palm Beach State prior to the injury. And then, obviously, he sat out ‘16, and then ‘17 he was just getting his feet wet pitching again. He could always command his fastball, had a really good change-up. I always joked with him that his breaking ball was not very good, and now he’s throwing nothing but breaking balls up in the big leagues.

Former USF standout Shane McClanahan, the Rays' ace, is 6-2 with a 2.10 ERA in 11 starts for Tampa Bay this season.
Former USF standout Shane McClanahan, the Rays' ace, is 6-2 with a 2.10 ERA in 11 starts for Tampa Bay this season. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

McClanahan, of course, is the Rays’ ace (6-2, 2.10 ERA) and is evolving into one of the game’s most dominant left-handers. Sanders, the Friday night starter in 2017, made five relief appearances for the Rays earlier this season, allowing only two earned runs in 10 innings before being placed on the injured list with back spasms and ultimately being optioned to Triple-A Durham in mid-May.

“It was fun to be able to see him get his opportunity, and he did well when he got it,” Mohl said. “I guess he messed up his back out in Oakland, but him and Pete are very similar. Obviously, Shane’s got the stuff, but Pete and Phoenix, they knew how to pitch.”

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