Acton puts major league dreams on hold to pursue college degree

 

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CHAMPAIGN — Drew Dickinson won’t necessarily focus all of his future closer recruiting efforts on Lemont High School. 

But it’s not an idea without merit for the Illinois pitching coach. 

The Illini have hit on a pair of Indians standouts at the back of their bullpen in Tyler Jay and Garrett Acton. The former set the Illinois saves record with 14 during the Illini’s Super Regional run in 2015 that propelled the fireballing lefty to the No. 6 overall pick in that summer’s MLB draft.

Nick Blackburn served as the bridge from one record-setter in Jay to another in Joey Gerber during the 2016 season. Gerber got a two-year stint at closer, tied Jay’s record last spring and parlayed his big year into becoming an eighth-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2018.

Which brings the Lemont connection full circle. Acton placed his name atop the Illinois record book 10 days ago with his 15th save that closed out a crucial Illinois victory against Indiana State, and the 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander put himself atop the nation with No. 16 on Saturday to clinch the Illini’s series against Indiana.

Illinois, which returns to action at 6 p.m. today against Purdue at Illinois Field, has simply passed the baton from shutdown closer to shutdown closer.

"It’s nice knowing that you have someone that you can put in that situation and not have any apprehension," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "Garrett has done an outstanding job the entire year. He’s very intelligent and works hard. It’s nice to have a guy on the back end that’s that talented."

Acton maybe wouldn’t have fit the closer bill directly out of high school, though. 

After winning two Class 3A state championships at Lemont as a sophomore and senior, Acton headed to Saint Louis. Acton made six starts for the Billikens — mostly in a midweek role — and appeared in nine other games out of the bullpen. 

The results were mixed. Acton had 31 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings, but also walked 23 batters, hit six more and posted a 6.12 ERA. His struggles were tied directly to his confidence — or lack thereof.

"My freshman year, if something would turn bad, I’d immediately kind of fold and go into a shell," Acton said. "I’d really struggle to get past those struggles in a game. If I walked somebody, it would compound and get worse and worse."

Acton was a bit of a nibbler at SLU. He could reach the low 90s with his fastball, but it sat closer to 88 mph. His curveball wasn’t as effective as it is now, either.

"Freshman year my stuff didn’t necessarily play at the level it does now," Acton said. "I had to pick around the plate, and I didn’t have that confidence to just go attack guys."

Acton ultimately left SLU after his freshman season. His struggles that spring, though, were a part of his growth process — part of his maturation as a pitcher.

"It was a tough decision," Acton said of leaving the Billikens. "I really loved the guys at SLU. I had a lot of great relationships with the players, and I have a lot of respect for the coaching staff.

"They really helped me grow to where I am now. A lot of kids in my situation, if they would have thrown how I did, they probably wouldn’t have thrown as much. That was instrumental in my growth, learning to compete and learning to face those failures."

Acton was looking for a better overall fit, though, so his baseball journey led him from SLU to a one-year stop at Parkland. 

It’s with the Cobras he caught Dickinson’s attention — for a second time. The Illini pitching coach remembered Acton at Lemont, but it wasn’t the right fit at Illinois at that time. 

Acton’s growth from his time in high school and the work he was putting in at Parkland under coach Jon Goebel changed the equation. Acton was throwing harder, playing his curveball off it better and pounding the strike zone. His successes — more strikeouts and a significantly better ERA in a similar number of innings with the Cobras as with the Billikens — upped his confidence, too.

"I don’t have to worry about nibbling around the zone so guys don’t hit my stuff," Acton said. "The biggest thing is I’ve learned how to compete when things are going wrong. Now it’s having the confidence in my stuff to be able to compete over the plate and try to find a way to limit runs. That’s my job. Even on my worst days, I’ve got to find a way to put up zeros."

Dickinson was certainly interested.

"He made some arm path changes and stuff like that to help the two-pitch mix elevate his game," Dickinson said. "When I went and saw it (at Parkland) I liked it exactly for a closer role. High spin fastball and a good breaking ball. Exactly what you need for one-inning stints."

Acton developed that "it" factor a closer needs, too. Dickinson recruited him that fall — when he was starting — before Acton moved into mostly a reliever role with the Cobras during their NJCAA Division II World Series runner-up season. 

The Illini pitching coach was clear with his plan from the get-go.

"I was like, ‘Hey man, I don’t want you to start here. I want you to come in and take Joey’s spot,’ " Dickinson said. "He was excited about that. It’s a mentality, and not everybody can do it. It takes a set of you know what and a different kind of thing in your chest to go out and get the last three outs of a baseball game. It’s not that easy."

In short, not everyone can close.

"He’s a guy that can handle that pressure," Hartleb said. "The last three outs of the game — maybe the last out of the game — are the toughest thing if you look at any level. He’s got a really good arm, he’s got a plus breaking ball and it’s just a little bit different. His delivery is just a little bit different, just like Joey Gerber’s was. It’s very tough to time someone when you get that short look at them."

How Dickinson has handled his bullpen in the last several years has helped Illinois’ closers. Mainly because they’ve held that clearly defined role in a bullpen full of clearly defined roles.

"I treat my bullpen — I try to at least — like the big leagues," Dickinson said, which trends him away from using a reliever multiple innings just because they had one good one.

"I don’t like that," Dickinson continued. "I like my guys to be able to affect multiple games in a weekend. Let’s say Garrett was like that. He throws three innings one game, and he’s done. He affected one game where in essence he could affect two or three. We have the depth to do that.

"Ask a guy to go get three outs instead of, in his head, nine and he’ll have way more success if he lacks great stuff. A closer like that in Jay and Gerber and (Acton) — who have two good pitches — you put them in a one-inning situation and they should be dominant."

Closing the door

Illinois single-season saves record-holder Garrett Acton is in the running for NCBWA Stopper of the Year honors this spring. Here’s how he ranks among the nation’s best closers:

CLOSER, TEAM SAVES

1. Garrett Acton, Illinois 16

Andrew Gross, UT-Arlington 16

3. Holden Powell, UCLA 14

4. Kieran Shaw, Harvard 13

Chris Lincoln, UC Santa Barbara 13

Reeves Martin, New Orleans 13

7. Grant Leonard, Iowa 12

Trey McDaniel, Southern Illinois 12

Connor Hinchliffe, La Salle 12

10. 12 closers tied with 11 saves

 

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).