Zack Godley’s final college baseball game might have come one year ago, but when the Major League Baseball draft rolled around last summer, his phone didn’t ring.
To be accurate, it did ring, but not with the news — or the price — he wanted to hear.
So Godley returned to college, a rare, undrafted SEC ace, and set about pitching an even better season than the one before.
The Vols (21-28, 7-18 SEC), who play host to Texas A&M (28-24, 11-15) for three games beginning on Thursday, are vying for the 12th and final spot in the SEC tournament, a trip the program hasn’t made in five years. Much of UT’s hopes for extending its season rest on getting a win from Godley (5-6, 3.44 ERA), who has kept UT afloat in virtually every conference weekend this season.
For as bleak as this season has been at times, it’s no exaggeration to say that Godley has single-handedly kept it from being much, much worse.
“He’s been huge for us this year,” said UT coach Dave Serrano. “I’m very thankful that he came back and committed to coming back. And I think we both benefited tremendously out of it.”
Although Godley contends he was far from a polished pitcher when he arrived at UT, he did have a knack for throwing strikes.
When he shifted from the bullpen to a starting role in 2012, his strikeout rate dropped, but his efficiency soared. In 168 innings during the past two seasons, his
strikeout-to-walk ratio is just a hair under 3.
“I hate getting behind in counts and I despise walking batters,” Godley said.
Godley is 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds with a respectable if not overpowering fastball for the college level. But Serrano said he had to embrace the art of pitching, not just throwing.
“One of the things I said from day one is that when you pitch and you’re successful pitching you have to have finesse,” Serrano said. “You have to be able command things. When I got to Zack I felt he was trying to pitch like a middle linebacker, and he didn’t have the finesse of a wide receiver. And he bought into that.”
Godley, who spent his freshman season at Spartanburg Methodist, didn’t start pitching regularly until he was a junior in high school and sometimes struggled with his control. But his ability to command multiple pitches — not just his fastball — has led to a remarkably consistent track record in college baseball.
Now the question is whether pro baseball will notice.
As a right-handed pitcher without a top-tier fastball, Godley won’t show up on any elite project lists, even though his numbers could make him competitive with just about anyone. Instead, a major-league team will have to draft him based on his consistency, his command and — as Serrano would say — his finesse.
“I know for a fact he was disappointed (last year),” Serrano said. “But he accepted it and he got excited about coming back. And, yes, he’s still going to get his chance (in pro ball).”
Godley said he’s enjoyed another solid season, fostered deeper friendships on the team and is on the brink of getting his degree, so he has no regrets about spending his senior year in Knoxville.
As for his future? “It’s up to them to decide, but I think I’ve done well and I hope someone gives me a chance,” he said.
Tennessee catcher Ethan Bennett, who sees Godley’s arm up close, said he’s impressed by the way the pitcher is both intense and even-keeled, no matter what the situation or the opponent.
“I hope he gets the opportunity, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he should,” Bennett said. “He’s a hardworking guy, always has been. He’s come a long way. He’s gone from wild man to strike thrower and that’s a big change. I think he definitely deserves a shot.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.