By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
Girard High School graduate Tanner Poppe has set the stage for a breakthrough senior season with the Kansas Jayhawks.
Poppe, a 6-foot-6 right-handed pitcher, allowed no runs on two hits with nine strikeouts over five innings as the Jayhawks beat the Kansas City Royals Dominican Academy 3-2 in December at Art Stewart Field in the Dominican Republic. The Jayhawks hope to see more performances like that from Poppe as KU opens the season against Nevada on Feb. 15 in Mesa, Ariz.
“He probably pitched the best game of his career,” KU coach Ritch Price said of the game in the Dominican. “He has worked hard. He had his best fall in four years. It was the best I’ve seen from him in four years. Hopefully, he will take that next step this season.”
There’s no doubt the potential has always been there. The big righty could reach 90 mph in high school and was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 37th round of the 2009 MLB draft. The talent was evident even though baseball often took a backseat to football and basketball when playing with the Trojans.
“He’s a world-class athlete,” Price said. “He has tremendous size, tremendous strength. Kansas State offered him a football scholarship. He walked on campus throwing 90 mph. But like a lot of guys from smaller schools, he struggled with his command and secondary pitches.”
A power pitcher, Poppe’s velocity on his fastball has increased from the 88-91 mph range in high school to consistently throwing between 90-93 mph and topping out at 97 mph. His focus is on commanding his fastball and continuing to improve his slider and changeup.
“I try to hit my spots,” Poppe said. “My slider and changeup are a work in progress.”
Improvement in those areas is what helped Poppe perform so well in the Dominican.
“He started to command that slider better,” Price said. “He showed he can throw it for a strike.”
Poppe has made big strides in his first three years at KU.
He was named the team’s rookie of the year as a freshman, earning a 3-4 record and 5.25 ERA in 20 appearances with nine starts. Poppe was 3-6 with a 3.66 ERA in 71 1/3 innings as a sophomore. Last year, he was the team’s closer and led the Jayhawks with five saves.
After his sophomore season, Poppe turned down professional baseball for the second time when the Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the 37th round of the MLB draft.
Poppe said while he wonders sometimes about the decisions he made to pass on pro ball, he is excited for his senior season with KU and will move back to the starting rotation.
“I look back at that and sometimes I wish I would have,” Poppe said. “But these years at KU have been awesome. After this year, hopefully I will get an opportunity in pro baseball.”
Price said he believes Poppe made the correct decision.
“I think now he has the best chance in pro baseball since he’s walked on campus,” Price said. “I’m proud of him for making those choices. He knew he wasn’t ready. He knows he has a great arm and pro potential, but he needed work.”
The Jayhawks will try to improve on last year’s record of 24-34 overall and 7-16 in the Big 12. Price said Poppe will play a big role in that effort.
“We were in the top 25 in 2009 and 2010,” Price said. “To get back to that level, we need him to have a great year. If he has a great year, we’ll have a great year.”
A strong season can only help Poppe’s pro chances. However, he has options if professional baseball doesn’t pan out. An exercise science major with a 3.8 grade-point average, Poppe has been selected all-academic Big 12 first team in each of the past two seasons.
“I’m trying to keep my doors open,” Poppe said. “This is my last year and I’m going to give it my best. If pro baseball doesn’t work out, I have a good plan B. Hopefully, one of the two works out.”