Oklahoma State's Thomas Hatch gets stronger at the right time

OMAHA, Neb. -- One year after an elbow injury knocked him off the mound and forced Thomas Hatch to contemplate his future, the Oklahoma State ace pitcher is growing stronger as his innings mount.

Strange, right?

Hatch, the recent initial draft pick of the Chicago Cubs -- he went 104th overall on June 10 as the club surrendered its first- and second-round picks for signing free agents John Lackey and Jason Heyward -- fired a complete-game gem in the Cowboys' College World Series-opening, 1-0 win over UC Santa Barbara on Saturday at TD Ameritrade Park.

Nine more innings pushed his total to 128.1, fifth most in a season at Oklahoma State. But Hatch, a 6-foot-1 redshirt sophomore, shows no signs of wear.

It's the opposite, in fact.

"The kid has done his part," Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday said. "He's had great people behind him, helping him get back on the horse. And he's been exceptional. To think you could have anticipated that, I don't see how you could have."

Hatch's nation-leading fourth shutout of the season moved the Cowboys, perfect in six NCAA postseason games, into a meeting Monday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN against Arizona.

A top prospect out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2013 -- ESPN ranked him 30th nationally -- Hatch struggled as a true freshman with two victories and a 5.28 earned run average. He felt discomfort in his pitching arm before Dr. James Andrews diagnosed a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in the spring of 2015.

Hatch redshirted and received a platelet rich plasma injection, opting against surgery because of the minor nature of the tear.

He returned in 2016 with a fury, earning Big 12 pitcher of the year honors. Hatch went 38.2 innings without allowing an earned run in April and May and has thrown 26 straight scoreless innings after the CWS shutout, including 23 straight in the postseason.

Holliday and Hatch credit catcher Collin Theroux for managing the pitcher on the mound and pitching coach Rob Walton for his mastery of Hatch's training and pitch selection.

Holliday twice mentioned trainer Eli Williams on Saturday for his work during Hatch's 2015 rehab. And Hatch said he learned while on the bench from left-handed pitcher Michael Freeman, drafted last year by the Astros.

Clearly, Hatch's ascension is a team effort -- so much so that as the pitcher discussed his success after the Saturday victory, Holliday turned to offer coaching wisdom.

"You can take some credit, Thomas," Holliday said. "Some."

He deserves more than some.

In improving to 9-2, Hatch outdueled UCSB ace Shane Bieber, who also threw a complete game in the Gauchos' first-ever CWS game.

Hatch walked one and allowed three hits through four innings, throwing 67 pitches. After the Cowboys took the lead on three straight singles in the bottom of the fourth, Hatch needed 45 pitches to finish the game.

He retired 12 consecutive Gauchos from the fourth through seventh innings.

"Early on, I was worried," Theroux said. "I told him after the game, 'You were scaring me out there.' He was flat, just kind of missing spots."

Hatch said the adrenaline of the CWS environment affected him. His arm couldn't catch up to his body, he said, and he left pitches high in the strike zone.

But Hatch recognized the problem.

"I was in a good place mentally," he said. "It just came down to making the adjustment at the right time. I was able to calm down and get a feel for my pitches, get a little bit more reach and get the ball down."

The start Saturday, Hatch's 18th of the season, still could be his last. But if Oklahoma State wins Monday, the Cowboys are off until Friday -- and Hatch would surely get another chance to pitch.

And there's the matter of his future. With two remaining years of eligibility and status as the Cubs' top pick, Hatch appears to be in a good place. This postseason also won't hurt his negotiating position.

"It's a huge compliment, them drafting me," Hatch said. "But I try to keep that out of it. If we start paying attention to distractions like that, we'll be in trouble."

Holliday asked his players -- 11 Cowboys were drafted this month -- to set aside thoughts about their future until the experience in Omaha concludes.

"Let's live in the moment," the coach said, "and let's just cherish the chance to be here. Because once you leave here, you can't ever come back. And any thoughts that take you to next in life -- maybe I'll sign, maybe I won't -- that is an enemy of what we're trying to do."

That said, it wasn't hard Saturday to envision Hatch working on the mound at Wrigley Field.

"He looks to me like a guy," Holliday said, "who has a chance to pitch in the big leagues."