The man behind the arms: Pitching coach Jeff Opalewski grooms six seasons of aces
After being picked in the 28th round of the 2000 Major League Baseball Draft out of high school, Jeff Opalewski chose Central Michigan University over the Cleveland Indians.
Fourteen years later, his decision is still having a major impact on the program.
Opalewski is in his sixth season as the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at CMU, the Chippewas have prospered, especially his pitchers.
His ability to work with difficult personalities and recruit young talent in has made the baseball program successful.
"That's my job," Opalewski said. "My job isn't to lay out expectations and make them conform. My job is to try to get the most out of each individual. If you take time to invest in the individual and figure out who they are and what makes them tick, it makes that fairly easy."
Working with a head case
Trent Howard was labelled a head case, and admitted so himself.
He had a bad attitude and wasn't a team player when he started at CMU.
Opalewski worked with Howard, who recalls a moment in the beginning of his sophomore season when Opalewski might have turned things around.
It was the season opener against California and Howard got the start. It didn't go well.
He was rocked throughout the game. The Chippewas lost 9-4 after he gave up eight earned runs on 11 hits in 3 2/3 innings.
Howard didn't get the start in the first game of the following series at Central Florida. During the bullpen session before taking the mound in game two, Opalewski saw he wasn't in the right mindset, so he took him aside.
"I was a head case," Howard said. "Ten minutes before I had to go out and pitch, he started yelling at me and called me out for what I was doing. He gave me a second, told me to breathe."
Howard threw a complete game shutout, allowing four hits while striking out a career-high 11 batters.
He went 4-3 that season with a 3.58 ERA and earned All-MAC second team honors while his team went 36-22 overall and 20-7 in the Mid-American Conference.
He finished 4-4 with 2.78 ERA in his junior season before being drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Baltimore Orioles.
Howard is still with the Orioles today, on the cusp of moving up into Class-AA, two steps away for the majors. In his rookie season he was quickly promoted to Class-A short season where he made the New York-Penn League All-Star game.
"I owe a lot of what I am now to coach (Opalewski)," Howard said. "He learned my personality and learned how to counteract it."
Pumping a pitcher up
Jon Weaver is a laid back kind of guy who doesn't get caught up in the moment – a blessing and a curse for a pitcher as no moment is too big for him, yet some might be too small.
He was the No. 2 starter to begin the 2012 season, but in after two starts, he was 0-2 with a 7.50 ERA and was moved to the bullpen.
From there, he became the closer and ended the season 3-3 with a 2.66 ERA and seven saves.
Tied at four in an elimination game in the MAC tournament against Eastern Michigan, the Eagles got a runner on second with one out in the top of the ninth. Weaver entered the game and stranded the runner by recording two strikeouts. Nate Theunissen rewarded his efforts with a walk-off two-run home run giving Weaver and CMU the win.
"A person's behavioral traits lend better to different positions," Weaver said. "I'm more of a laid back person and coach (Opalewski) recognized that I needed to get amped up and that's why I ended up closing."
Weaver was drafted in the 21st round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He spent one season with the Rays before tearing the labrum in his rotator cuff, ending his professional career.
Filling the shoes
Following the 2012 MLB Draft, the rotation looked bare.
Weaver, along with Zach Cooper, Ryan Longstreth and Dietrich Enns were all drafted – a group who accounted for almost half of the team's innings pitched.
"That was a pretty good pitching staff in 2012," Opalewski said. "We lost Cooper, Enns, Longstreth, Weaver and Kaminska (due to injury), but if you take a deeper look into the staff, the ones who fly under the radar ... we were building while (winning)."
Lost in depths of the pitching staff in 2012 was freshman pitcher Jordan Foley, who had a 3-0 record, but an 8.20 ERA.
In 2013, he hit his stride, becoming the team's ace with a 6-6 record and 3.08 ERA.
"(Opalewski) instilled a lot of confidence in me," Foley said. "He made me believe after my freshman year I could still be the guy. He always put me in situations and put me in games my freshman year when I was struggling."
Foley became the guy after Kaminska went down with an injury and is leading the staff this season.
The team today
The Chippewas are rolling and it's the pitching staff in the driver seat.
The team has a combined 2.91 ERA, good for No. 47 in the nation, and Foley is back as the ace at 3-2 with a 3.19 ERA. The starting rotation is 11-7 with a 2.92 ERA while the bullpen is 2-2 with a 2.93 ERA and six saves.
"I thought this was going to be a deep staff coming in," Opalewski said. "Our starting pitching has been outstanding and our bullpen is doing a good job at being themselves. Nobody is trying to do more or force themselves into something they're not."
Sophomore Adam Aldred is the team's fourth starter and also comes out of the bullpen. He is joined by a veteran pitching staff who is coming out of the bullpen.
"We have (Matt) Trowbridge, (Sean) Renzi (who is starting to get healthy), so it's sort of like an evolution," Opalewski said. "(Jimmy) McNamara is a guy who is slightly smaller in terms of innings, but he's doing what he should be doing and he's doing a good job."
Joining Foley and Aldred in starting roles are guys on opposite ends of the spectrum: returning senior Pat Kaminska and true freshman Nick Deeg.
"We've got Foley, Kaminska and Deeg, who is as polished a freshman as we've had come in," Opalewski said. "Aldred has done a tremendous job and went out over the summer and did everything we've asked him to do."
Getting the job
Whether it is with his pitchers or on the recruiting trail, Opalewski has done his job.
In the past five seasons CMU is 154-140 with a 4.44 ERA, second in the MAC in winning percentage (.524) and team ERA. Those numbers are produced by 11 players who are in the program's all-time record book and nine in the single-season record book.
His players have collected 10 All-MAC second team honors, four All-MAC first team honors, three All-Midwest Region honors, one MAC Freshman of the Year, one MAC Freshman All-American and one MAC Pitcher of the Year. Included in those honors are 10 pitchers who have played professionally.
"I have confidence in him having been in both of those positions (pitching coach and recruiting coordinator)," said head coach Steve Jaksa. "Working with someone for so long you want to make sure you don't take anything for granted. When you're with someone for a long time, you gain trust and allow them to do certain things."
When a player leaves to go pro or graduates – a pitcher or position player – Opalewski is there to replace them.
As the recruiting coordinator, he's the man in charge of bringing in the talent. He does it so well in fact, he wrote a four-part series dealing with recruiting for college baseball for the website fullwindup.com.
He goes after Michigan first where he got Deeg, Tyler Huntey and the Regnier brothers, Nick and Logan. Next, he travels to Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, where he found McNamara, Trowbridge and first baseman Cody Leichman. Then he goes out further, stopping in Texas, where he found Foley and Aldred.
"He made me feel comfortable when I came up for my visit," Deeg said. "I felt like one of the guys and every phone call we had he kept opening my eyes to new things."
The future for coach Opalewski
With the job Opalewski has done heading into his sixth season, Jaksa and his program aren't taking him for granted.
With the numbers his staff puts up each year and the quality guys he brings into the program as a recruiter, it is a wonder how long it'll take before he gets the reigns of a program.
"That's ultimately going to be something Jeff and I talk about," Jaksa said. "He loves Central Michigan (a graduate in 2005) and he is very keenly aware of what he wants to accomplish here. There is that bond that we work really hard and make sure that environment is right. You can go somewhere else and be miserable, but he likes it here."
If the day comes when someone comes calling for Opalewski's services and he decides to leave, Jaksa will make sure his right-hand man and former player is ready for the next step.
"You always want to prepare somebody for whatever is going to be next for them," Jaksa said. "The more decisions he's involved in, the more prepared he'll be, whether that is here or somewhere else. Whatever life has for him, we want him to be ready"