For two pitchers who spent most of their baseball lives starting games, Sacramento State’s Sutter McLoughlin and Alex Palsha have adapted well to finishing them.
Palsha, a junior, is the Hornets’ setup man; McLoughlin, a sophomore, is the closer.
Entering Tuesday night’s game against UC Davis at Raley Field, the two right-handers have combined for 54 appearances, an 8-3 record, 11 saves and a 1.72 ERA.
“They are an outstanding one-two punch for us,” says Sac State coach Reggie Christiansen.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound McLoughlin already has tied the school record for career saves with 26. The 6-2, 210-pound Palsha is three appearances shy of the school season record of 33, and his 461/3 innings are the third most on the team.
The relievers have helped keep the Hornets (32-20, 18-6) atop the Western Athletic Conference standings entering the final weekend of the regular season and in position to win their second conference title in three years.
Christiansen said the contrasting pitching styles and personalties of Palsha and McLoughlin make them an effective foil for opposing teams.
Palsha can be fiery; McLoughlin is usually poker-faced. While both have blazing fastballs, McLoughlin is a master of the changeup, and Palsha befuddles hitters with a wicked curve.
“We have different tempos,” said Palsha, whose role is to set up the closer by holding onto leads in the seventh and/or eighth innings. “(McLoughlin) likes to slow the game down a lot, make the hitters wait. I kind of come right at people. So batters are getting different looks, and that throws them off a little.”
Both have mentally adjusted from having plenty of time to prepare as starting pitchers before arriving at Sac State toentering a game at a moment’s notice – often with the game on the line.
McLoughlin said his legs felt like jelly last season when he made his Sac State debut at Texas, a six-time College World Series champion. Despite the nerves, McLoughlin earned the save in a 5-3 win over the Longhorns. The Rio Americano High School graduate went on to set a school record with 17 saves and was named a Freshman All-American and first-team All-WAC.
It was a different story this February in the Hornets’ return to Texasto playTexas A&M. McLoughlin was much more confident and comfortable as he pitched two innings to earn the savein a 1-0 upset of the Aggies, ranked 21st nationally at the time.
“I’ve pretty well adjusted,” said McLoughlin, who is 3-2 with nine saves and a 1.43 ERA this season. “I don’t feel too nervous anymore. I’m pretty confident.”
McLoughlin also picked up wins in one-run victories over No. 24 Fresno State (2-1, 10 innings) and No. 4 Oregon State (7-6). Both games were played at Raley Field.
Palsha had some jitters, too, when he made his first relief appearance for Sac State in the season opener at home against Utah on Feb. 14. He entered in the eighth inning with a 3-2 lead.
“I was a little bit nervous, but more excited,” Palsha said. “I wanted to show the team what I had. I think the most important thing was to throw strikes and get the job done as quickly as possible.”
Palsha threw 10 pitches, six for strikes, in a one-two-three inning, then gave way to McLoughlin, who earned the save.
Palsha has had several stellar performances since, but perhaps none bigger than April 12 at Grand Canyon, which trails the Hornets by a game in the WAC. He pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam with the score tied 4-4 in the eighth inning, earning the win in an eventual 5-4, 10-inning victory.
Palsha admitted he had some concerns about how he would adjust to being a reliever after starting at San Ramon Valley High in Danville, Contra Costa College and the College of San Mateo.
“I think I grew into the role,” said Palsha, 5-1 with two saves and a 1.94 ERA. “And as I did, I started liking it a lot more. It’s been different, but it’s been fun, too.”
While the Hornets will have McLoughlin, a pro prospect, at least through the 2015 season, Palsha may be one-and-done depending on what happens in the June draft. Older brother Ryan was a 16th-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2009, though he’s now out of baseball.
But Palsha and McLoughlin say they are more concerned about the present. They look forward to helpingSac State finish the regular season strongly after the Hornets dropped two of three conference games last weekend at Texas-Pan American.
A win Tuesday night would give the Hornets a two-game series sweep of UC Davis – and a 6-0 record in Raley Field games this season. A sweep of their final three regular-season games, at home against North Dakotabeginning Thursday, would secure the outright WAC title.
Then if the Hornets win the WAC tournament, May 21-25 in Mesa, Ariz., they’ll earn the school’s first NCAA Division I playoff appearance.
“We feel this is the best shot Sac State has had at making the NCAA Tournament,” McLoughlin said.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.