Pitching coach BJ Green credits his battle with leukemia for bringing him to Georgia Southern; where he is leading the baseball team to one if it’s most successful pitching runs in history.
“If I would have never got leukemia I probably wouldn’t be here. I met my wife here, we’ve got two kids. As bad as things get, there’s always something good that comes out of it if you look for it,” Green said.
Green was born in Gardendale, Ala. and pitched at the University of Alabama. He set the school record for most wins by a freshman in 1998 before becoming a coach for the Crimson Tide. In 2006, he was diagnosed with cancer and had to take a year off of coaching in 2008 after receiving a successful stem cell transplant.
“I was looking to get back in to coaching and there was an opportunity here that I interviewed for and was lucky enough to land the job,” Green said.
He took over the GS pitching staff in July 2009 and has had eight players drafted into the MLB since his arrival. Last season, the Eagles posted a team-ERA of 3.15, the lowest team-ERA since 1978 and third lowest of all time. If the season ended today, the Eagles 3.89 mark would be fourth lowest of all time.
Green says that his battle with cancer made him a more patient man and a better coach.
“It helps you put things into perspective. I definitely think it made me a better coach…you kind of slow down and try to appreciate where you’re at, what you’re doing,” Green said.
That slow-down-and-breathe attitude is reflected in his players. Green likes his pitchers to be relaxed. He doesn’t like to change up mechanics a whole lot and he values having individuals on the mound with different styles of pitching.
“I feel like if we recruited them and tried to bring them here, there’s something that made them successful. I definitely don’t want to take that away from them,” Green said. “I kind of try to individualize programs to the pitcher rather than having a pitching staff full of the same guys, the same arm slot, the same looking windup…I feel like to build a pitching staff, you need a lot of different looks that you can throw at the opponent.”
However, if something is wrong, he’s going to make a change.
In 2011, Georgia Southern pitcher Matt Murray was having trouble locating pitches on one side of the plate leading up to the season, and his velocity was down.
Green, although he admits he should’ve noticed it sooner, told Murray to make a small, but specific change.
“The week of the first game we moved him from one side of the rubber to the other, and he ended up being the conference pitcher of the year,” Green said.
Murray led the Eagles to the 2011 SoCon Championship out of the bullpen and finished the year with a 1.99 ERA, a 4-2 record and eight saves. He was drafted in the 10th round to the Kansas City Royals.
“He would probably tell you it’s cause he moved to the other side of the rubber,” Green said.
Green doesn’t like to do a whole lot of critiquing in practice because he can’t do that when it matters – in the game.
“I really don’t do a whole lot of talking to them in the bullpen,” Green said. “My view on the bullpen… is that’s where the preparation starts for on the field. And I’m not going to be out there with them in the game.”
“If you want to be critiqued, he’ll give his insight on what he thinks is best,” LHP Evan Challenger said. “During this stage when we’re late in the season, it’s not as much about critiquing as it is about keeping your stuff sharp. If he notices something little then he’ll let you know about it.”
The bulk of the adjustments he makes come in the fall, when pitchers are narrowing down their focus heading into the holiday break before the season.
Green was an accomplished pitcher himself, so he had his sights on playing ball after college. But, that dream becomes a reality only for a very select few. He knew that his career was winding down when he played his senior season for Alabama in 2002.
“I had some coaches that had pulled me aside before and thought I’d make a good coach. I always prided myself on kind of being a coach on the field. I just didn’t really want to get out of the game; I’ve always loved the game. It was a natural fit,” Green said.
A natural fit, indeed. In five years of coaching at GS, he’s had two conference pitchers of the year, and LHP Jason Richman was the SoCon Tournament MVP last season. Challenger, who holds the lowest ERA in the Sun Belt with a 1.19 mark and is 4-0 in nine starts, is making a strong case for the Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year this season.
Green feels like his staff is more complete this year than last year. In 2014, he had a few dominant pitchers in Richman, LHP Sam Howard (3rd round draft pick – Rockies), RHP Josh Wirsu (SoCon Pitcher of the Year, 30th round draft pick – Cardinals) and RHP Matt McCall out of the bullpen.
“Last year Sam and Josh were at the front of the rotation as our 1 and 2, but they were both kind of 1’s. This year, I feel like Connor [Simmons] has done a really good job on Sunday,” Green said. “I don’t know if we had that last year so I feel like we have three solid guys.”
Simmons, a freshman, has a 3.29 ERA a 2-3 record in ten starts. He’s caught some bad breaks and his record doesn’t reflect how he’s pitched, especially for a freshman.
“I feel like our depth in our bullpen is better this year. We’ve used more guys than we did last year,” Green said. “Last year we kind of used Jason and McCall a lot, they had a lot of appearances. Now having more guys that we’ve used, hopefully everybody will be a little fresher for the stretch run.”
The stretch run starts tomorrow. The Eagles play four more weekend series’, three of which are conference games. The Sun Belt Tournament starts May 20 in New Orleans, La.
Pitching won them the conference last year, so to get back to the NCAA Regional’s, it will be necessary again this year.