Taylor Williams’ recruitment from the Pacific Northwest to Northeast Ohio started with a text message from the back of a stuffy bus traveling somewhere in New Hampshire two summers ago.
Williams was a talented but slightly disgruntled pitcher for his hometown Washington State University. He just didn’t enjoy his freshman year of college baseball the spring before and had decided to attend junior college and transfer somewhere.
As with many college players, he had been assigned to play summer ball, and it happened to be with the Keene Swamp Bats, with three Kent State players on the roster — David Lyon, Tyler Skulina and Derek Toadvine. It was with Toadvine with whom Williams struck an instant friendship while on the road, and it was Toadvine’s text message that eventually started Williams — now the Golden Flashes’ No. 1 starting pitcher — on the road to Kent State.
“We kind of hit it off and grew to be best friends over the summer,” Toadvine said. “Every morning we’d go work out and get lunch before the games. He wasn’t enjoying himself at Washington State and was looking to go somewhere else. I told him he had great stuff and we could use him so coming back home from a game one night I shot coach [Scott] Stricklin a text.”
The initial word was negative — the Golden Flashes were full and didn’t have a roster spot. But a final slot opened up as their summer-ball season was ending, and Toadvine, Skulina and Lyons continued to put in a good word.
For the most part, all Stricklin and his staff had to go on was some film and the confidence of Toadvine and the others. It was enough, and Stricklin took a chance.
But Williams, from Camas, Washington, grew up along the West Coast and considered going even farther west. As he neared the signing date, he was still deciding between Hawaii and Kent State. The people he’d be with in Kent — Toadvine, Skulina, Stricklin and pitching coach Mike Birkbeck — outweighed the weather in Hawaii (it also might have helped that when Williams visited KSU, it just happened to be a picture-perfect weekend weather-wise).
“We laugh about it now,” Stricklin said. “It came down to Waikiki Beach and Kent, Ohio. And he chose Kent. That’s the first time I’ve recruited against Hawaii and probably the last.”
Stricklin and his staff weren’t as confident about what kind of pitcher they were getting, because at the time they really didn’t know. During summer ball and in the fall, Williams played all over the field and didn’t perform quite as well as Stricklin had hoped.
Coming off a miracle run through the College World Series last summer, KSU lost much of its pitching staff, and Stricklin was hoping Williams might help out a little.
What the Flashes got was a legitimate No. 1 starter to take the mound on Fridays and be the ace of their staff.
“Honestly, I definitely wasn’t expecting to pitch on Fridays,” Williams said. “I figured I’d pitch on the weekends but I didn’t know where I’d fit in. Coming into the season, I didn’t expect it to pan out the way it has.”
It took one start for him to open some eyes to his potential. Williams allowed only one earned run against UNC-Wilmington and struck out five in seven innings, and hasn’t slowed down. He’s currently 9-1 with a 2.35 ERA and has 100 strikeouts in 99⅔ innings. He’s pitched at least six full innings in every start and allowed more than three earned runs in an outing only twice and none or one run five times.
“He’s been a lift for us,” Stricklin said. “We only had Skulina left [from the weekend rotation] last year. We needed a guy to come in and fill one of those holes. Not only did he do that, but he became our ace.”
Pro scouts have taken notice. Williams is currently projected as the No. 144 overall prospect, according to Baseball America.
“I’d lie if I said I wasn’t thinking about it at all,” Williams said of the opportunity to be drafted. “I’m just focused on finishing this season. I try not to think about that stuff because we have a long way to go. But if I get drafted in a good round, then that’ll be something I definitely consider doing.”
Williams has gone from a lost Washington State freshman to the mound for Kent State to a probable high draft pick in this June’s MLB draft in less than 24 months. Even for him, one known for putting very high expectations on his own shoulders, it’s been a whirlwind of circumstance.
“It’s definitely all taken me by surprise, especially for the last month or so,” Williams said. “Coming in, I always have high expectations for how I perform on the field. But still, I didn’t come into this season with any expectations as far as the draft or how well we’d do. That’s been pretty amazing.”
Williams gave the boost the Golden Flashes desperately needed as they came down from a summer-long emotional high that surely didn’t stay in Omaha, Neb. He’s one of the biggest reasons for the team’s 15-1 to finish the regular season, he’ll be on the mound today for the top-seeded Flashes in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament to face Central Michigan, and he’ll likely have the option to turn pro in a few weeks.
He’s come a long way from the back of a bus traveling somewhere in New Hampshire, his friend busy on his phone, texting for his future.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.