Morris: USC closer Tyler Webb is unflappable

rmorris@ thestate.comMay 4, 2013 

USC's Tyler Webb has rebounded from Tommy John surgery as a teen to become one of the best closers in college baseball.



USC’s all-time pitching appearance leaders:

Player App. Years
Matt Price1022009-12
Tyler Webb992010-2013
Michael Roth942009-12
Rob Mosser881990-93
Aaron Rawl872002-05
Jason Pomar871997-00
Jamie Poston861997-00
Kip Bouknight811998-01

YOUNG TYLER WEBB’S left arm hung like a wet rag as he trudged off the old Sarge Frye Field on that sweltering hot June afternoon in 2007. The hopes and dreams of a budding star pitcher were shredded like the ligament in his left elbow.

Gone like the wind was an expected scholarship offer from South Carolina, the program Webb dreamed of pitching for one day. Seemingly gone as well was the prospect of some day pursuing a professional baseball career.

Tommy John surgery would come soon, but not one person in attendance for that Sunday AAU game could have imagined how the Tyler Webb story would turn out. USC’s recruiting coordinator at the time, Monte Lee, would not have believed it. Heck, neither would Webb’s parents, Kirk and Kristin.

Fast forward six years, and you find Webb as one of the nation’s top relief pitchers, a stalwart in the USC bullpen who Chad Holbrook calls the team’s most valuable player. Webb entered this weekend’s series against Vanderbilt at Carolina Stadium three pitching appearances shy of the program’s career record. His 14 saves led the SEC and ranked second nationally.

His spectacular senior season, one in which — before the weekend — he had allowed two earned runs in 30 innings with seven walks and 44 strikeouts, has positioned Webb to be selected in the first 10 rounds of the upcoming Major League Baseball draft.

Along the way, the quiet and unassuming Webb has shed the label of being a “soft” competitor on the pitcher’s mound, a branding that no doubt stemmed from being reared on Virginia’s Delmarva Peninsula in a backwater town so small he occasionally jogged its three-mile perimeter.

Webb also has overcome a learning disability, one first detected when he was in the third grade, to work his way onto the SEC Academic Honor Roll one year and to within a semester of earning a degree in retail management.

Ask anyone about Webb — Lee, Holbrook, teammates, USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers — anyone who knows him. They all offer the same response: He’s a special kid.

Nassawadox, Va., is the classic American pass-through town, most motorists noticing only the sign on the side of the road as they travel U.S. 13 via the direct route from the Virginia Beach area to the beaches of Maryland and Delaware. Not many stop, unless it is to dine at the Great Machipongo Clam Shack, along the 70-mile stretch of two-lane road that takes one, heading north, from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Maryland state line.

Nassawadox does house the lone hospital, Riverside Shore Memorial, on the peninsula, which means the downtown area is speckled with physicians’ offices. The nearest Wal-Mart is 20 miles away in Melfa. Growing up in Nassawadox means carpooling to the elementary school in nearby Exmore, to middle school in Machipongo and to high school in Eastville.

Webb’s father was reared in Machipongo, his mother in Franktown. They met and began dating at Northampton High, then continued their love affair at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Kirk eventually hooked on as a logistics manager at NASA’s Wallops Flight Center, hard by the Maryland state line on Wallops Island, where he has worked for the past 26 years. Kristin became a State Farm insurance agent with her father, Bart Holland, who also owns and operates Holland Funeral Home in Nassawadox.

During the government shutdown of 1995, when Kirk and his brother, Scott, were serving furloughs from the Wallop’s Flight Center, they explored the possibility of a fall-back business. The two, along with their father, Kenny, got into the aquaculture trade.

By 2005, the company was incorporated as Gale Force Seafoods and was harvesting clams in Chesapeake Bay. Tyler, who was 5 when the business began, learned at an early age how to grow littleneck clams. They are planted, finger-nail size, in 15- by 50-foot beds and covered to protect them from being eaten by crabs and stingrays. It takes 18 months to two years to grow one-inch size clams for sale. With 50,000 clams in a bed, the Webbs can harvest as many as three million at one time.

Webb, like his grandparents, parents and uncles, gained a genuine appreciation for the water and the outdoors, and quickly became an avid hunter and fisherman, despite being allergic to shrimp and scallops.

There is a solitude to being an outdoorsman.USC teammate and close friend, Brison Celek, himself an avid outdoorsman from the Charleston area, says there also is a learned patience in those sports that carries over to baseball, a character trait he sees in Webb.

It is the same patience with the game Webb learned from his father, a left-handed pitcher himself at Old Dominion, where he fashioned a 6-2 record and 3.98 earned run average over the 1986 and 1987 seasons.

The elder Webb built a pitcher’s mound in the back yard of the white Cape Cod-style house where Tyler was raised on Rogers Drive in Nassawadox. If the two were not playing catch there, they made the one-block walk through a soybean field to Randy Custis Memorial Park on Pine Street.

The park was named for a 9-year-old boy who loved baseball and was killed in a 1978 car crash by a drunk driver. His parents established a fund to forever keep the field so “other children could benefit from the game and grow to love sports, especially baseball, as much as Randy did,” according to the fund’s website.

Tyler Webb was one of the thousands of Northampton County youngsters who have benefited from the fund. On those Little League fields, Webb showed promise of a great future in the game, at least in the eyes of his father. With little high-level competition in the area, Kirk Webb looked elsewhere for Tyler to play.

At age 13, Dad landed a spot for his son on the Virginia Sharks AAU team where he got noticed by Jamie Evans, who owned the National Pitching Association in Salisbury, Md., with former major-league pitcher Tom House.

Over the next five years, Evans became Webb’s personal pitching instructor. That meant the grandparents picking up Tyler after school and driving him north to the NASA plant, passing him off to his father who would complete the 1½-hour drive to Salisbury. They did this three or four times a week, year-round, eventually burning through a couple of the family’s Chevy Suburbans.

Eventually, Webb joined the North Canes AAU squad coached by Jeff Petty, who immediately detected an uncommonly cool demeanor about Webb.

“Nothing ever bothers the kid, ever. To be a pitcher, that’s a pretty dad-gum good quality to have,” Petty says. “You wouldn’t know if there were 20,000 people in the stands and the bases were loaded or there was nobody in the stands and there was nobody on base. You would never know the difference with his demeanor and the way he goes about it, the way he attacks hitters.”

Petty sparked Webb’s early interest in USC and by the summer before his junior year of high school, Webb was considered one of the top two pitching prospects in Virginia. The other was right-hander Ethan Carter from Newport News. The two, Webb at 6-foot-6 and Carter at 6-5, formed what were known as the “Twin Towers” by scouts from USC, Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina.

Both played for the North Canes and both were bent on attending USC if the Gamecocks offered scholarship money. That led to the June 2007 weekend AAU tournament at Sarge Frye Field, where both were expecting offers from USC. Carter pitched one game and USC obliged.

Warming up in the bullpen before his starting assignment, Webb felt a ligament tear in his elbow. He attempted to pitch anyway, and it did not go well. Instead of offering a scholarship, USC coaches informed Webb and his parents that they would wait to see how Webb’s recovery went.

“He was devastated,” Kirk Webb says.

“It was pretty disappointing,” Tyler Webb says.

The remainder of the North Canes team headed to Clemson for another tournament the following weekend. The Webbs drove that night back toward Nassawadox. Not a word was spoken in the car ride. They got as far as Florence on I-20 and could go no farther. Kirk says he and his wife did not sleep that night.

Once back in Nassawadox, the Webbs found that Kirk’s HMO coverage through NASA would not pay for his son’s arm surgery. Regardless, the Webbs decided they would seek the best surgeon in the country for Tyler. They drove to Birmingham, Ala., for a mid-August appointment with renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews.

“He looked at the MRI and within 30 seconds said, ‘Your UCL is torn, you’re scheduled for surgery tomorrow morning at 9, see you there,’ ” Tyler recalls.

Dr. Andrews performed Tommy John surgery, transplanting a ligament from Webb’s leg to rebuild the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Dr. Andrews trimmed the expenses for the Webb family, which still paid approximately $20,000 out of their pockets for the surgery.

Then the rehabilitation began back home. Under strict instructions from Dr. Andrews, Bayside Rehabilitation in nearby Belle Haven oversaw Webb’s daily work. At night, Tyler was pushed by his father through stretching exercises that often brought the son to tears.

Webb was on a crash course that would allow him to pitch again within 10 months. It was important to again catch the eye of college scouts during the summer before his senior year.

After sitting out his junior year of baseball in high school, Webb’s return appearance to the mound came with the North Canes in a June 2008 AAU tournament at Virginia Tech. Monte Lee drove from Columbia to Blacksburg, Va., specifically to see Webb pitch.

Webb was limited to 50 fastballs, which was enough to satisfy Lee and he offered a scholarship. Webb visited Virginia the following day, then called Lee to say he would play for USC. He also called Holbrook, who at the time was coaching UNC in the College World Series, to say he would not be a Tar Heel. A day later, Lee took the head-coaching job at College of Charleston and Holbrook replaced him at USC.

Webb first attempted to be a starting pitcher at USC, but he never could establish consistency over several innings and eventually became the setup man a season ago for closer Matt Price. When Price departed, the closer’s role was his, and Holbrook has been thrilled with the results.

“It’s even keel, whether he does good or does bad,” Holbrook says. “He’s not very emotional. He keeps his emotions in check. But he wants the ball for that last out. He competes. When we have to have that 27th out, all of the sudden that 91 miles per hour fastball becomes 94.”

It is the same quiet determination Webb displayed in his studies growing up, as well as at USC. He was detected at a young age with dyslexia, which affects him most while reading because he has difficulty deciphering the difference between letters such as “b,” “p” and “d.”

Holbrook says he is quite certain the “soft” label given Webb early in his career stems from the pitcher’s personality, off the field and on. Those who thought of Webb in those terms do not see the pitcher’s competitive nature during practices or workouts, according to Holbrook.

Celek, Webb’s roommate for three years, says he sees that fire during their fishing and hunting ventures together. Celek says Webb is an excellent shooter of both ducks and bucks, although Celek is quick to point out that his teammate recently missed an easy shot at an eight-point deer.

Fellow USC pitcher Patrick Sullivan, Webb’s roommate on road trips, says Webb has loosened up some over his career. Sullivan points out that Webb recently purchased a camcorder and occasionally videotapes unsuspecting, sleeping teammates on the club bus. Sullivan also notes that Webb is the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest cornhole (toss) player,” although Sullivan disputes the claim.

USC fans never get to see that side of Webb. Unlike most closers — even in college these days — Webb does not sport tattoos or earrings, and does not prance around the mound after strikeouts. Webb says he will not do anything to bring undue attention to himself on the mound.

He appears to be unflappable. A weekend ago, Webb entered the Saturday game at LSU with USC leading 4-2 going to the bottom of the ninth inning. Webb immediately surrendered a double and a single, leaving the potential tying runs on first and third bases.

Holbrook asked Meyers to make a visit to the mound to settle down not only Webb but the USC infield as well. As the Alex Box Stadium crowd worked itself into a frenzy, Meyers first approached the home plate umpire under the guise of making certain he had another allowable visit to the mound.

Meyers told the umpire he really wanted to allow Webb a chance to catch his breath. Then Meyers got face to face with Webb, who Meyers says he seldom instructs anymore because the pitcher’s maturity has made their relationship more about consulting than coaching.

“Rolling a ground ball would be huge,” Meyers recalls telling Webb. “Let’s get ahead of the next three hitters and see what happens.”

“Let’s go,” Webb replied.

Webb struck out the next LSU batter on three pitches, the following one on four pitches, and got the third out on a fly ball to center field. Of course, Webb politely shook his teammates’ hands and walked off the field.

It was the kind of performance that has made Webb an essential part of USC’s success this season, the kind of performance that led Allan Simpson, national cross-checker for Perfect Game USA, to link Webb to former USC standout Michael Roth. “Roth’s instant success at the pro level should pave the way for another left-hander with a similar profile and background to crack the first 10 rounds (of the draft),” Simpson writes.

Webb could be another in what is a surprisingly healthy list of talent that hails from the Nassawadox, Va., area. Former major leaguers from the area include Johnny “Hans” Wittig, who pitched for the Giants and Red Sox in the 1940s; Chuck “Slim” Churn, a pitcher for the Pirates, Indians and Dodgers in the late 1950s; and Bobby Brown, an infielder with four teams in the early 1980s.

Then there is Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, a blues singer and author in the 1940s of such hits as “My Baby Left Me,” and “That’s All Right.”

Listen closely the next time Holbrook and Meyers signal for Webb in the bullpen at Carolina Stadium. As they send him to the mound, the two coaches should hum a few bars of Crudup’s biggest hit, “So Glad You’re Mine.”

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