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Lee County's Aldrich making most of second chance at Darton

Former Lee County star Matt Aldrich almost gave up baseball after a rough transition from high school to college at Valdosta State, but Darton came calling and he’s revived his career.

Former Lee County star Matt Aldrich almost gave up baseball after a rough transition from high school to college at Valdosta State, but Darton came calling and he’s revived his career.

ALBANY — Matt Aldrich sat next to the Darton baseball field reflecting on some of the darkest moments of his life.

His tears have dried over time, but the painful memories were still there, creeping back to the surface as he talked about the last two years.

“I had lost confidence in myself,” said the 2009 Lee County grad, who now pitches for Darton and leads the NJCAA with 90 strikeouts. “I was a head case, I guess you could say.”

He was close to hanging up his mitt and forgetting all about his dream after two rocky seasons at Valdosta State.

That’s about the time Darton first-year coach Scot Hemmings showed up, changing everything about Aldrich’s way of thinking — and his career.

“Matt came to an individual workout, and I saw an unconfident human being and pitcher,” Hemmings said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know what happened. I can’t throw the ball over the plate anymore.’ I said, ‘I bet I can get you to throw the ball over the plate again.’ ”

Aldrich almost immediately committed to the Cavs, who were starving for pitching, and he has since emerged as the ace of Darton’s staff, which has led the No. 12 Cavs — ranked nationally for the first time in the history of the program — to a 28-8 overall record and first place in Region XVII at 15-1. He will start today’s game against region foe ABAC with a 6-0 record and a 1.91 ERA and will pitch in front of scouts from the Baltimore Orioles.

He compares his time at Darton, which will end after one season thanks to his recent commitment to Columbus State, to the good-ole days at Lee County, where his journey as a pitcher began.

He had settled in as the starting third baseman under longtime Lee County coach Rob Williams, who has seen plenty of talent come through his system. Midway through his junior season, Williams went to Aldrich with an idea.

“We said, ‘Hey, let’s get on the mound and see what happens,’ ” said Williams, who credits Lee County pitching coach Kevin Taylor for helping Aldrich develop his slider. “He had an outstanding arm that we thought we could do some good things with. He was a big, strong kid who threw the ball well. We got him on the hill and started working with him.”

Aldrich remained the team’s primary third baseman, but Williams brought him in as a situational relief pitcher throughout his junior season. The right-hander’s role expanded his senior season when he took to the mound as one of the team’s starters. He finished with a 7-1 record his final year at Lee County and started getting looks from colleges for his pitching, rather than his play at third base.

“He became a dominant pitcher,” Williams said. “He did a great job of getting ahead (in the count), and he could throw that slider. It was outstanding. As he pitched more and more, he gained more and more confidence.”

He barely had his feet wet at Valdosta State before the tidal wave of trouble headed his way. He had pitched just three games and four innings as a reliever before he stepped on the lip off the infield during practice and landed awkwardly on his ankle.

“I was running to first to cover the bag and turned to call for the ball,” Aldrich said. “Then I slipped on the lip and fell back on my ankle. The way it happened and the way I fell back on it, it was like a freak accident. It was the worst pain I have ever been in.”

But the pain only got worse.

He was given a medical redshirt, then came back for a second freshman year. But when he returned, he found he had lost control of his pitches, including a slider that had become his bread and butter.

“I was just pressing way too hard,” Aldrich said. “I was trying to make myself throw strikes instead of knowing that I could do it. (Valdosta State coach Greg Guilliams) came and said that he really didn’t have confidence in throwing me out there. That’s one of the reasons I wasn’t getting playing time at the beginning of the year, and I just really wasn’t happy down there.

“I almost hung it up. I sat down with my parents and thought about transferring. Then coach Hemmings called me, and I came and threw for (Darton). They offered me on the spot. We talked about him giving me a second chance, and he wanted me as a starter.”

Hemmings will never forget that workout last May that solidified his pitching staff.

“When I got the job, I sat down the with coaching staff and said that we need pitching,” Hemmings said. “In the first open tryouts that I had, the first guy that gets up is (Darton No. 2 pitcher Tyler Oglesby), and he pops a 91 mph fastball. The next guy that gets up is Aldrich, and he pops a 90 mph fastball. I looked over at (Darton assistant coach Justin Huff) and said, ‘Where did these guys come from?’ ”

Aldrich informed Hemmings that he had changed his form on the mound several times and had lost all control and confidence, but Hemmings said he wasn’t worried.

“He has a fast arm and a good pitchers’ body,” Hemmings said. “When I talked to him, he was hungry to get back out on that mound to have success.”

Aldrich also wasn’t worried that he could regain his old form.

“I decided to come in with a totally clear head. Valdosta was in the past. I came over here starting over and didn’t worry about what happened at Valdosta,” Aldrich said. “I definitely know that there is a lot more you have to put into the game. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t a hard worker, but to be good you have to put in a lot of work. Now, I’m ready to put in that work and get better.”

His work ethic changed, and his new teammates at Darton notice.

“He is the leader of our staff, and he does things right,” said Oglesby, who has a 2.13 ERA and 5-3 record. “We try to follow after his example on the field. He has talked to me between innings and told me what I need to do. He is just a great leader and knows his stuff.”

Aldrich is also setting an example off the field.

“Last semester, he had the best semester GPA-wise since he has been in college,” Hemmings said. “He has grown up, and I am really proud of the human being he is becoming off the field and in the classroom.”

Aldrich brings a four-pitch arsenal to the mound — a slider, a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball and a change up, which he is still trying to fully develop. His fastball is clocked in the upper 80s and lower 90s, but nothing compares to his slider — a pitch that Hemmings said Aldrich could throw “five times to any hitter in the big leagues, and he’s not going to hit it.”

“Everybody asks him what his grip is on that slider,” Oglesby said. “He shows us the grip, and we all try to mimic it. He just has touch. Some guys get it and some guys don’t. Some guys have a fastball, and some guys have to rely on off-speed pitches. Matt’s got the whole kitchen sink.”

Without a doubt, it was that slider that caught the attention of Columbus State, which is one of the better Division II programs in the nation and has been ranked as high as No. 4 this season. He committed a little more than a month ago after the school gave him a scholarship paying 65 percent of his tuition.

“They gave me a great offer that I couldn’t refuse,” Aldrich said. “I don’t think I was going to go Division I after this year because I wasn’t going to be able to graduate (from Darton) after this semester, so Columbus State was the best suited for me.”

But before Aldrich darts off to Columbus, Darton still has some work to do. And Hemmings said there is no one else he would rather have leading his team into the postseason.

“He is not only going to leave an impact at Darton, but he will leave an impact on me taking over for (legendary coach Glenn Eames) and getting off to the start we have gotten off to,” Hemmings said. “Who would have thought that we would be ranked 12th in the nation with a 28-8 record? Matt has had a lot to do with that, because when he is on the mound everybody is confident.”