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Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Exeter High grad delivering for UConn
Exeter High graduate Carson Cross, of Brentwood, is the ace of the University of Connecticut pitching staff. (COURTESY)
"When he throws strikes at the knees, it's like a ball falling from the sky. It's really tough for hitters to square that up," UConn coach Jim Penders said before taking the team bus to the University of Hartford for a game on Tuesday.
A draft-eligible sophomore, Cross is off to a tremendous start this season. The Exeter High graduate and Brentwood resident was named Big East Pitcher of the Week after winning his fifth consecutive start for the Huskies.
Cross (5-0, 1.09 ERA) threw seven scoreless innings to beat Georgetown on Saturday, fanning five batters without surrendering a walk in a 6-0 win that raised UConn's overall record to 13-7 and its Big East mark to 2-1. He pitched all game with a comfortable lead over the Hoyas, thanks in part to Nashua native Billy Ferriter, who walked in the first and scored on a home run.
Not that Cross has needed a lot of offensive support since making his collegiate debut.
As a true freshman in 2011, he practiced with the Huskies but watched from the sidelines as the team won 45 games, capturing the Big East title and reaching the NCAA Super Regionals against South Carolina. As a redshirt frshman last season, he made 18 appearances (two starts) and posted the second-lowest ERA on the team, 1.21.
"What really caught our attention was the way he prepared and his attention to detail," said Penders. "He dedicated himself to getting better every single day."
Good genes helped a bit, too.
Carson's father, Jeff, was a basketball standout at Portsmouth High and the University of Maine. A 6-foot-10 center, the elder Cross became the first former New Hampshire high school player to make it to the NBA when he came off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers, eventually playing in 21 games.
Carol Cross, Carson's mother, was a member of the U.S. freestyle ski team, mashing moguls and performing acrobatic jumps before the discipline of skiing was an Olympic sport.
"He's got some really athletic folks - and that helps a lot - but you don't become a front-line starter in the Big East without an incredible work ethic and strong character," Penders said of Carson. "When you've got six days in between starts, a pitcher can get a lot better or a lot worse. It takes a lot of pride and character to keep working hard to improve every day."
Pro scouts are keeping close tabs on Cross, who has the nation's lowest ERA among active Division I players (minimum 75 innings pitched). The big righty has racked up 33 strikeouts, with 11 walks. That's not an overwhelming strikeout total, but Cross' game is not always about swings and misses.
"He gets a lot of bad swings early in the count, which is even better. He'll get a ground ball early, which helps him keep down the pitch count," said Penders.
UConn assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Justin Blood, a former standout at Monadnock Regional High of Swanzey Center and Franklin Pierce University, was the man behind landing Cross. Blood, who pitched in the minors for Seattle, has seen 10 of his UConn pitchers selected in the June Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Cross, whose fastball sits at about 89-91 mph, could be the next draft pick at UConn. A stint in the Cape Cod League last summer and the strong start this spring are making that all but a certainty.
"The scouts are sniffing around," said Penders. "Carson is in the driver's seat. He has all the leverage because he'll be eligible to be drafted again next year (as a junior). He has excellent command and a feel for three pitches."
Cross is scheduled to pitch again this weekend against St. John's University in Storrs, Conn.
Email staff reporter Kevin Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graymatter11.