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Pitt

Pitt ace Zeuch projected to be Pirates' top pick in MLB Draft

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, May 14, 2016, 8:00 p.m.
Pitcher T.J. Zeuch could become the first Pitt player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft since 1981.
Jeffrey Gamza | Pitt Athletics
Pitcher T.J. Zeuch could become the first Pitt player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft since 1981.

The Milford (Ohio) High School baseball coach knew the truth almost immediately. His team was destined to lose its 2013 district championship game against Mason.

The reason: T.J. Zeuch was on the mound for Mason.

Zeuch (pronounced Zoik) struck out 13 batters and allowed no earned runs in a 3-1 victory. When it was over, the Milford coach approached Curt Bly, then an assistant at Mason.

“We didn't have a chance today,” he told Bly, who just smiled.

Bly already knew. Just like Pitt coach Joe Jordano knows what Zeuch means to his team three years later.

“T.J.'s name is going to be mentioned among the best, if not the best, to ever pitch here,” said Jordano, who has been the coach at Pitt since 1998.

“You always knew you were going to have a chance to win (when Zeuch was pitching),” said Bly, now the coach at Mason.

During his senior year at Mason, the largest school in Ohio, Zeuch compiled an 0.62 ERA, a record for the Greater Miami Conference.

In the waning days of his college career, Zeuch's reputation is spreading.

With a fastball that has reached 97 mph and a 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame, he could be the first Pitt player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft since 1981 when the Texas Rangers chose pitcher Al Lachowicz of Bishop Canevin.

“Somewhere in the back half of the first round is going to be a good spot for him,” said Jonathan Mayo, a reporter and draft analyst for MLBPipeline.com. “He's good. He's got a great arm. The velocity is always there. He could go (in the first round) because of how he's thrown and his size and a lack of decent college pitching in this draft class.”

Baseball America rates Zeuch its 21st overall prospect, No. 3 among ACC players, and it projected him going to the Pirates with the 22nd pick.

Zeuch, 20, said he has been contacted by every team. Everyone knows about the physical gifts. Teams now are trying to figure out his personality, which means they seriously are considering him. The Boston Red Sox gave him a picture of a little boy and a violin and told him to write a story.

Earlier this season, when Zeuch faced Virginia pitcher Connor Jones, another first-round prospect, scouts filled five rows of seats at Pitt's Charles L. Cost Field.

The draft, though, is a story for another day. MLB will conduct the first round June 9.

Zeuch, who eventually wants to go to law school, has pointed his mindset away from the draft and toward helping Pitt (25-21, 10-14 entering Saturday) reach the ACC Tournament for the first time.

“I try to ignore outside sources because no one really knows anything until draft day is here and I get the call,” he said.

Pitt's tournament hopes took a hit Friday when Zeuch settled for a no-decision in a 7-6 loss at Miami, ranked fourth in the nation by Baseball America. Zeuch (6-1) had won six of his first eight starts but allowed four earned runs, seven hits and three walks in 5 23 innings against a team entering the game with a .309 batting average.

Zeuch has a 3.41 ERA with 62 strikeouts and 17 walks in 60 23 innings, but his season didn't start well. He missed the first month with a groin injury that Pitt's medical staff treated cautiously. Jordano estimates the injury cost Pitt about four wins.

Zeuch has been a weekend pitcher at Pitt since 2014, his freshman year. In college baseball, conference games are played on the weekend when coaches use their best pitchers.

Zeuch, whose height sends the baseball plateward at angles that can befuddle batters, employs four pitches: fastball, curve, slider and changeup.

He said he picked up some velocity on his fastball by spending extra time in the weight room and adding more protein to his diet. But he still needs more confidence in his changeup, a pitch Jordano calls “the great neutralizer in baseball.”

“I told a couple of (MLB) scouts,” Jordano said, “when he masters that pitch and gets a better feel for it and gets more confidence with it, that will make him that much more ready to pitch at the major league level.”

Zeuch recognizes the problem with the changeup, a pitch he said he uses about 10 percent of the time.

“Sometimes I leave it up a little too high,” he said. “A changeup up in the zone is just another (batting practice) fastball, and anybody can hit that.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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