OMAHA, NEB.: When he first watched David Starn pitch, Kent State coach Scott Stricklin was so unimpressed that he asked a 7-year-old what he thought.
The 7-year-old didn’t like Starn, either.
When Stricklin told that story Thursday during a new conference at the College World Series, it was more of an indictment of himself and his reliance on the radar gun. He had no idea the left-hander from Hudson would become KSU’s most decorated pitcher, drawing the start today in the biggest game in school history.
But that day on the mound for Walsh Jesuit High School, Starn hit only 79 to 81 mph on the radar gun. Stricklin said every time he came to see Starn his senior year, the reading never varied.
It was time to decide whether he should offer Starn a scholarship, so Stricklin scrutinized Starn alongside then-University of Akron assistant Brian Donohew and his son.
“I looked at the 7-year-old and said, ‘Do you like that pitcher?’ ” Stricklin recalled. “He looked me in the eye and he goes, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I agree with you.’ ”
There would be no scholarship, from Kent State or anyone else, even after Walsh Jesuit captured the state championship. But fortunately for Stricklin, Starn wanted to stay close to home. Driving back from a visit to Marietta, Starn called KSU pitching coach Mike Birkbeck and said, “I’d like to come to Kent State if you still want me.”
The Golden Flashes wanted him — as a walk-on.
“That’s the best decision we ever made and actually he made the decision,” Stricklin said. “That’s like the Patriots taking credit for Tom Brady. They drafted him in the sixth round, they passed him up five times. We passed up David, too, like everybody else.
“He’s made us look smart for four years.”
Starn’s walk-on status lasted only one year. As a freshman, Starn earned a save in the NCAA Tournament against Cal-Poly. Pitching well in the offseason program, he earned a spot in the starting rotation as a sophomore.
Since then, Starn has never feared the big stage, even last year against Texas in the NCAA Tournament. That bravado will be tested today (5 p.m., ESPN) as Kent State opens its first College World Series against Arkansas with Starn on the mound.
The 2012 Mid-American Conference Pitcher of the Year and a Louisville Slugger second-team All-American, Starn has set Kent State career records in pitching victories (29), strikeouts (343) and innings pitched (335⅓). This season, he’s 11-3 with a 2.21 ERA with 123 strikeouts in 114 innings. During a 21-game winning streak that was snapped last weekend against Oregon, Starn went 7-0 with a 2.19 ERA and 48 strikeouts.
On April 6 when he became KSU’s strikeout king, Starn struck out a career-high 12 against Buffalo, including nine of the first 16 batters. He surpassed the total of 274 career strikeouts by Dirk Hayhurst (2000-03).
Totally unaware of the story Stricklin told Thursday until afterward, Starn wasn’t the least bit embarrassed.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m here where I am today, so I have nothing to be ashamed about.”
Neither is he self-conscious about his radar gun readings, even though he said he’s hit 88 twice this season. Stricklin said he’s usually between 82-85 mph.
“I don’t feel like anything’s changed in my pitching,” Starn said. “I still don’t throw that hard.”
The Atlanta Braves don’t seem to care, selecting him in the seventh round earlier this month.
“They told me they don’t scout with the gun, they just look at how you pitch,” Starn said. “So I think it’s a good fit.”
Now when Stricklin looks at Starn, he sees Jamie Moyer. A sixth-round pick in 1984, Moyer pitched in the majors until he was 49, cut last month by Colorado Rockies.
“The radar’s never gotten anybody out. We say that all the time, but we still take it with us,” Stricklin said. “If a guy throws 80 mph, it’s ‘Oh, geez.’ David is not going to throw it by you, he can just pitch.
“The big-league equivalent to him is Jamie Moyer. David has the same kind of stuff.”
Stricklin might have been wondering where that stuff was during Starn’s last outing. Starn walked a career-high seven against Oregon, but still picked up the victory as KSU hung on for a 7-6 triumph in the three-game NCAA Super Regional series opener in Eugene.
Stricklin attributed Starn’s walks to a problem adjusting to the mound. Birkbeck said Starn was not finishing his pitches, a minor mechanical glitch that Birkbeck said was straightened out earlier this week.
“That’s about as bad as he can pitch and we still beat the No. 5 team in the country on the road,” Stricklin said. “He still won the game.
“That is the greatest story about David Starn. When he’s bad, he’s better than most. When he’s good, he’s better than anybody.”
Starn’s success shows scouts — and not just those in baseball — that it’s not all about the measurables. Radar gun readings may draw oohs and aahs at major-league ballparks. But if miles per hour were everything, Starn, Stricklin and the Golden Flashes might not have reached their mecca.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.