By Rob Rains
It was just three years ago that Webster University baseball coach Bill Kurich stood in the dugout, watching as Josh Fleming pitched against conference opponents such as Eureka, Westminster and Fontbonne.
This week, Kurich stood in his living room – he was too nervous to sit down – and watched on television as Fleming came into the game to face Mookie Betts and the rest of the Dodgers lineup in game one of the World Series.
“It’s crazy,” said Kurich. “To think of where he was three or four years ago and now the kid I know is out there pitching in the World Series on national television. It’s just unbelievable.”
Kurich, who has coached at Division 3 Webster in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves since 2006, was on the phone with one of his assistant coaches during the commercial break before the bottom of the sixth inning in Tuesday night’s game. They were discussing their plans to travel to Arlington, Texas for the games this weekend, when they hoped Fleming might have a chance to pitch.
“I looked up at the television and the screen switched and he was on the mound,” Kurich said. “I just said, ‘Holy cow, he’s in the game right now. I’ve got to go,’ and hung up.
“I don’t know if any of us can understand what emotions he was going through.”
Kurich was not the only person associated with the Webster program who was watching the game. Former teammates were tuned in, hoping to see Fleming pitch. Ever since Fleming was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, they have paid close attention to his accomplishments and followed his progress all the way to the major leagues in August.
But pitching in the World Series, with Betts coming up as the first hitter?
“Of course it’s Mookie freakin Betts,” said Kevin Spisak, who grew up with Fleming in Columbia, Ill., and was watching the game with his parents. The two played on the same Tee ball team, coached by Fleming’s father, and were teammates, and battery mates, through both high school and college.
“It was unreal. Just talking about it right now I still have chills,” Spisak said. “It’s just so wild what he’s doing from the little 5-foot-10, 145 pound kid to being in the majors.”
Another former teammate and friend, Zach Bishop, was part of a group chat of Webster players that he said was “blowing up” when everyone saw Fleming come into the game. “It was incredible,” Bishop said. “Pretty special.”
Watching with current Webster teammates at his apartment, Matt Mulhearn had a lot of memories that were suddenly flowing through his mind. He was a freshman when Fleming was the ace of the Gorloks as a junior in 2017.
“It’s crazy to think that he was my teammate not too long ago and now he’s facing one of the best hitters in baseball. … It’s quite the talent change, right?” Mulhearn said. “You go from facing opponents in a small D 3 conference to MVP candidates and former MVPs.”
While his television was still showing a commercial, Mulhearn’s phone rang. A former teammate now living in Chicago was calling.
“Dude, you see this?” he asked Mulhearn. “I was like, ‘what?’ He was maybe 20 seconds ahead of me on the TV feed and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh my God. No way. He’s coming in to pitch right now.’
“A few years ago, he was sitting with us watching on television. Now we’re watching him.”
The home run
It will no doubt be a moment that all of Fleming’s friends will bring up in the future, perhaps as soon as his wedding next month.
“Oh yeah,” said Spisak, who along with Fleming’s brother will be a co-best man at the wedding. “For sure.”
So Josh, what happened with the first pitch you threw in the World Series?
The answer, of course, is that Betts hit the 92 mile per hour sinker for a home run over the right field wall.
Fleming gave up another run in the inning, on back to back doubles by Justin Turner and Max Muncy, before he ended the inning throwing a called third striker past Cody Bellinger. Staying in the game, Fleming worked a perfect seventh before allowing a single to Betts and getting Corey Seager to ground into a double play in the eighth.
A walk to Turner and a single by Muncy ended his night, and all of Fleming’s friends and former teammates, as well as Kurich, were not surprised he had navigated the tough challenge.
“They kind of ambushed him,” Kurich said of the Dodgers. “They came up swinging and jumped on him but then he settled down. I’m sure he was nervous, and sure he was feeling the adrenalin, but he handled it so well. He’s an extremely confident person.”
Spisak has seen that kind of reaction before, albeit on a smaller stage.
“He always finds a way to settle down and get things done,” he said. “He always has a way to take a deep breath and slow the situation down and know how to get out of it.”
Said Bishop, now the head coach at Westminster, “One of the cool things about watching him go through the stages, especially coming from a small school, is the composure he has on the mound. A moment never seems to be too big for him.”
“He is going to be really good”
One of Kurich’s assistants at the time saw the left-handed Fleming pitch at a high school tournament and came back and told Kurich that he liked him enough for the school to start recruiting him.
“He wasn’t a guy who jumped off the page at you,” Kurich said. “The thing he did the best was throw a ton of strikes. His mechanics were very clean and everything was very smooth for him – but he only threw 80 to 81 miles per hour. He made a huge jump as he got into college and got bigger and stronger. His clean, fluid delivery produced a lot more velocity.”
It did not take long for Kurich to start seeing Fleming’s potential. In the first game of his freshman year, against nationally ranked Emory University, Kurich brought Fleming in from the bullpen.
“He really had not thrown a pitch above 87 miles per hour and all of a sudden he hit 90,” Kurich said. “He struck out one of the first batters he faced, a guy who had been the national player of the year in Division 3 the previous year. He threw the ball right by him. I remember turning to my assistants and saying, ‘This guy is really good. He is going to be really good.’ The guy had no chance against him.”
By the end of that season, Fleming was the Gorloks’ number one starter, starting the opening game of the conference tournament, the first game of the regionals and game one of the college World Series.
Spisak remembers a game from the summer before their senior year of high school, when Fleming pitched against a team filled with players committed to Arkansas, Notre Dame and other major schools. He threw five shutout innings.
“He was always determined and wanted to be the best,” Spisak said. “He just developed late. He got to Webster and worked on his diet and nutrition and worked with the strength coach and put on like 30 pounds his first year.”
Said Bishop, “We always laughed about how picky of an eater he was. Then he got a little more serious and he got bigger and stronger and his velocity increased. He could always throw a strike whenever he wanted and throw any pitch wherever he wanted. When he gained velocity he didn’t lose the ability to do that.”
After overcoming an injury during his sophomore year, Fleming quickly drew the attention of scouts as he began his junior season.
“It was like a video game,” Kurich said.
In 13 starts that spring, Fleming went 8-1 with a 0.68 ERA, allowing only seven earned runs in 92 2/3 innings. His ERA was the best in the country among Division 3 pitchers, and his 115 strikeouts were the second most in the division. He allowed only 12 walks.
“I remember his first time throwing in front of scouts,” Spisak said. “We were at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and the AD didn’t confirm the umpires so they didn’t show up. Bill had us play an intrasquad game so the scouts could still see him.”
Matt Allison, the regional scout for the Rays, was not there that day but did see Fleming several times that spring and brought in Jeff Cornell, the organization’s Midwest supervisor, and other cross checkers to see him as well.
“I had heard a couple of buddies talking about him and just kind of reached out to Bill and popped in to see him,” Allison said. “Really from the first time I saw him pick up a baseball and throw it getting loose it was just one of those feelings where I really like this guy, this guy’s got a chance.
“He could really pitch. He had the ability to locate the fastball, had a feel for the changeup and two breaking balls at the time. I liked how he competed and how he went about his business.”
Said Cornell, “There wasn’t anything special with his stuff other than that he had a good sinker but all the other stuff combined all looked right. When you see a guy like that you kind of say to yourself, that looks like a big leaguer. His body, the arm action, the delivery, those were all good.
“You can see the movement on the fastball and the spin on the breaking ball and the arm action on the changeup so you can kind of go, that looks like big leaguer stuff right there … Luckily for us it worked out. I don’t know if he’s exceeded expectations but he’s sure done a good job for us. It’s a remarkable story.”
Even though Fleming was at a Division 3 program that had never before had a player selected in the draft that fact did not keep scouts from coming to watch him, once they found out about him.
“That’s one of the things that’s fun about this game,” Allison said. “Big leaguers come from everywhere.”
Added Cornell, “I’d never seen Webster University play in my life until Josh and I’ve scouted 33 years.”
What Allison, Cornell and the rest of the scouts saw was exactly what Kurich had seen for three years.
“As amazing and as dominant as he was, he was as good of a teammate and as down to earth of a player as we’ve ever had,” Kurich said. “This is a guy who was so dominant when he pitched here and never acted for one second like he was any better than anybody else on the team.”
Kurich still tells a couple of his favorite stories about Fleming, and neither is about a game he pitched.
“He got selected twice to shoot the half-court shot at a basketball game, trying to win a gift card or something,” Kurich said. “He made the shot both times. That’s the kind of athlete he is, the kind of guy he is, he’s just a winner.”
The second story came from the second game of a doubleheader, after Fleming had pitched the first game, and he and Spisak were in the dugout.
“We always bought the guys granola bars and fruit to eat between games,” Kurich said. “He and Kevin each took a banana and put it up to their ears and acted like it was a telephone and they were talking to each other like they were ordering sandwiches. They were just being goofballs, being college kids. … He hasn’t changed. He’s still one of the guys.”
Heading to Arlington
Spisak has made trips to see Fleming pitch at each level of the Rays farm system. He went to Princeton, West Virginia; then to Burlington, Iowa for his first start with Bowling Green. After a trip to Port Charlotte, Fla., came drives to Montgomery, Ala., and to Columbis, Ohio, when he started a playoff game for Durham.
When all of his friends found out that Fleming was going to make his major league debut in August, they hopped in the car and drove to St. Petersburg, Fla., even though they knew they would not be allowed inside the stadium because of the pandemic restrictions.
They watched the game on television from a bar across the parking lot from the stadium, then met with Fleming in the lot after the game.
Spisak and Bishop were among the friends who left St. Louis on Thursday to drive to Texas, where if the World Series goes to a sixth game, they might get to see Fleming pitch in person. They have tickets for games six and seven.
Kurich, who also visited Fleming in Florida this summer, also will be in Arlington this weekend.
Because he is still in school, Mulhearn is not on the trip but he knows he will see Fleming again soon when he is back in town, working out over the winter and throwing batting practice to the Webster hitters before heading to Florida for spring training next year.
“He’s got the perfect makeup to be the kid that comes from a small school and makes it to the big leagues,” Mulhearn said. “He works extremely hard and he’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around. He’s not backing down from a challenge and always wants to be the best.
“It’s encouraging for anybody who comes to this program or really coming from any small school. If you’re good enough, they will find you.”
Kurich doesn’t know when he will have a chance to coach another player like Fleming.
“The odds of Webster having a guy in the big leagues is astronomical,” he said. “All of these guys who have the dream that they are going to play professional baseball, we can tell them to come here. We’ve had a guy go through here, go through our strength program, go through our pitching program, and look where he is now. Josh is the one who deserves all the credit, but we certainly play off that.
“I still look at him as the same skinny kid who came here as a freshman and only liked to eat spaghetti o’s and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He’s still that kid to me. He just happens to be pitching in the World Series now.”
Added Bishop, “We’re all kind of living our dreams through him right now, getting to see him pitch in the World Series. It’s pretty special.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports, Webster University and Zach Bishop