May 16, 2006

Cool Yeksigian pitches way into record books

The day after a dramatic comeback from five runs down at last ups and a brilliant pitching performance, all things seemed possible at J. Kyle Field. Concordia was a quality squad, but the visitors couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities with fourth-year ace Dan Yeksigian on the mound. While the righty had walked three and allowed a run, the Cougars had not mustered a hit against the Maroons stopper through five full innings. Yeksigian had thrown the first no-hitter in the 103-year history of the Chicago baseball program against Rose-Hulman exactly 51 weeks before. Could history be unfolding for the stopper yet again?

The answer proved to be a definitive no just two batters into the sixth, as first-year third baseman Greg Grabowski poked one through the hole on the right side. The Cougars went on to knot the game up at 3–3 with two runs in the frame and worked Yeksigian for three more in the seventh to win it. The implosion would have shaken most pitchers. But the man at the center of it just shrugged it off.

“I figured I wasn’t going to be able to keep it up,” Yeksigian said. “I was pretty wild, just walking a lot of people. I thought that eventually they’d hit it, and that’s what happened.”

While some may dismiss that sort of equanimity as only attainable to those pitchers who have already tossed no-nos, it’s exactly the attitude that made Yeksigian one of the best to ever take the mound for Maroons baseball. Physical gifts and four-pitch arsenal aside, the key to the ace righty’s magnificent collegiate career has been his self-assurance. Time and time again, this stopper has rolled with the punches on his way to victory with a quiet confidence in his own abilities.

“He’s very poised, very mature,” head coach Brian Baldea said. “No matter what’s happening on the field, Danny always gives his teammates the impression that he’s in control, and people play well behind him. He has talent, he has velocity, he has a very good breaking ball, and he combines that with his poise and maturity on the mound. He’s the full package.”

It’s his unique mentality that teammates, coaches, and even Yeksigian himself credit as a key to his success. Incapable of being rattled in the face of adversity, he maintains an even keel at all times, confident that his skills will see him through. Still, he has not allowed his self-assurance to bleed into arrogance, earning him the admiration of almost everyone he has come into contact with as a Chicago baseball player.

“He was one of the most cool-headed pitchers I’ve played with, and that wasa definite asset to him in important situations,” third-year rotation-mate Dan Cozzi said. “[Yeksigian] was a humble star. He never let his success cause him to treatother players differently. He always helped out other guys on the team, especially younger pitchers, when he wasn’t pitching.”

Possessing a four-seam fastball and a killer curve upon his arrival on campus in 2002, he has added a two-seam fastball and a slider to his arsenal in the years since. He also has an uncommon sidearm throwing motion working in his advantage. The combination of such gifts with his approach to the game has allowed him to serve as a full-time starter while simultaneously filling in as a closer and middle reliever in his time in Hyde Park.

“I love being able to pitch. If it were up to me, I’d pitch every day,” Yeksigian said. “I knew I was a good pitcher, but I never would have imagined the success that I’ve had, and the luck I’ve had…. It’s been an honor.”

Yeksigian seems to exude calm in person. He is level-headed and thoughtful, expressing more excitement over the future prospects of his battery-mate first-year catcher Scott Hofer than about his own accomplishments. Despite a career win-loss record of 19–6 in just 27 starts, in his mind his mark on the program is something more than statistics.

“I don’t know that I’ve had a really big impact. I think the friendships are the biggest thing here, and trying to teach the younger players something about the game. It’s just a great bunch of guys,” Yeksigian said.

All the same, the numbers have been there from the start, even when he wasn’t a starter. Yeksigian started off in the bullpen for Chicago, unable to crack the rotation for a 25–6 squad in 2003. He managed to establish himself as an ace-in-the-making despite limited opportunities, giving up just three earned runs in 17.2 innings.

“Right from the Florida trip his first year, Danny impressed us with his ability to come in and calm things down. We always knew he would be a starter eventually. He was very talented, very poised even as a freshman,” Baldea said. “We put him in some tough spots where it would be easy for a young pitcher to crumble, but he handled them well.”

With the graduation of George Schade (A.B. ’03), Yeksigian stepped into the Chicago rotation for the first time in his second year. It did not go as smoothly as either he or the coaches had hoped. Fighting through tendonitis and bone spurs in his right elbow, he was hurt for a 7.71 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .326 against him as he was forced to sit out his final scheduled start of the year.

“I wasn’t throwing as hard toward the end, and my curve wasn’t as strong. It was weird. I’d had elbow problems before, but it was never that severe,” Yeksigian said.

Giving himself time to heal, the righty did not throw throughout the subsequent summer. His program of running and weight lifting and the development of his two-seam fastball allowed him to come back stronger than ever for his third year. Throughout the spring of 2005, Yeksigian held any who dared challenge him spellbound as he put together one of the greatest campaigns ever seen for Chicago baseball. He went 8–3 with a 3.31 ERA and a pair of shutouts, struck out 78 and even had a save under his belt.

“In Division III, pitchers usually have one fairly dominating pitch that, when it’s on, they can get guys out with consistently. DY has two to three pitches like that,” Cozzi said. “He can dominate some games with his fastball, some with his curve, some with his slider,and he usually has all of them at the same time.”

The breakout season culminated in his monster performance in the season finale against the Engineers on May 14. The squad had put together a return-from-the-grave comeback in the first game of the doubleheader but still needed a win in the back end from Yeksigian to clinch the winning season. The ace tied Rose-Hulman’s hitters in knots for seven innings, granting five free passes and striking out 10. While he was aided by a web-gem from shortstop Steve Ruh (A.B. ’05) and got himself in trouble with back-to-back walks to start off the seventh, the Engineers could barely get the bat on the ball.

“I don’t remember pitching any differently,” Yeksigian said. “I remember getting a lot of ground ball outs, the defense getting a lot of outs behind me, and it just worked out well. It wasn’t that much of a different experience. I pretty much assumed I wouldn’t have a no-hitter at the end of the game, so I was just trying to keep my composure out there and keep throwing well. It became a little more exciting in the seventh.”

“Everything was perfect. He just had everything going with him. He’s actually pitched that well several times last year and this year. Sometimes, that one ball they hit hard just goes right at somebody instead of through the hole,” Baldea said.

“It just seemed effortless, like he just snuck through the whole game without the batters ever figuring out his stuff,” Cozzi said.

Given that game’s place in Maroon history, one would suspect it was not as easy as its architect would have you believe. But for Yeksigian, the old adage rang true: The best pitch in your repertoire is always strike one.

“If you can throw first-pitch strikes, it makes the game go by a lot faster, and you have a lot more success. That’s the difference between a great game and a good one, and a good game and a poor one,” the stopper said.

“Dan can locate well with all his pitches. When you throw as hard as Dan does and have a great curveball like he does, it makes it even harder to hit those pitches when you can throw them for strikes,” Serio said.

The strikes have been harder to come by this year. Yeksigian had a middling spring by his standards, allowing 4.18 runs per nine innings and allowing opponents to rip him for a .272 average. While the ace added the slider for his senior year, he struggled to control the two-seamer and frequently got behind in the count. He still fought through to a 7–3 record and was the unquestioned number one starter for a team that finished the year at 17–17.

“It’s been a little tougher on him from the standpoint that he is number one, not just as a pitcher, but as a player,” Baldea said. “When you’re in that situation, you feel like you almost never can fail. Dan’s thrown a lot of innings this year; we’ve been pushing it a little bit in his senior year. Like every player and pitcher, he gets fatigued at times.”

Due to the rainout of a scheduled doubleheader against Rose-Hulman this weekend, the near-miss against Concordia will go into the books as the last career appearance for the ace. Not that he needs to bolster his numbers any to enter Hall of Fame territory. On the modern-era career lists, his 19 wins and three shutouts are second in program history and his 4.38 ERA, 191 strikeouts, 14 complete games, 43 appearances rank third. He also has the fourth-most innings pitched (193.1) and the sixth-most starts. As for single-season marks, his eight wins in 2005 and 7 wins this spring are the third- and fourth-most for a Maroon pitcher, and the 78 punchouts during his third year and his 66 K’s during his fourth are third and sixth.

“He had some good pitchers ahead of him his first year. If Danny had been on a lesser team as a freshman, he would hold every pitching record we have,” Baldea said. “I can honestly say Dan is as good as a pitcher as we’ve had here since I’ve been here. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Yeksigian’s baseball days might not be over yet. Baldea has helped him secure an invitation to the pre-draft camp of at least one major league club and is likely to attend camp for up to three teams, along with individual workouts for scouts. But even if the econ major from Downers Grove, Illinois never takes the mound again, the calm and composure that have been his strengths throughout his Chicago career should serve him well wherever the road takes him.