Turk Eyes Major Jump

7/29/05 – Daily News Record

Once A Walk-On, Arizona’s Mills Now A Pro Prospect By DUSTIN DOPIRAK Daily News-Record Brad Mills is a humble young man. Quiet. Devout. "He’s as quality of a human being as you’ll ever come across," said Mark Wasikowski, an assistant coach at Mills’ school, Arizona. But for all of his modesty, the left-handed pitcher can’t deny that every time he takes the mound for the Harrisonburg Turks, he feels invincible. "It’s just confidence," said Mills, a junior from Mesa, Ariz. "I know in reality these guys can hit me, but when I’m out there, I don’t envision anyone hitting me or even making good contact." And why would he? Few in the Valley League can touch him. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder has struck out 29 batters in his last two starts. Opponents are batting a feeble .198 against him and he’s allowed just three runs in his last three outings combined. Mills is 5-0 with a wire-thin 1.62 earned run average that would rank second in the league if he had enough innings to qualify – he has 39, he needs 44. He’s second in the NCAA-sanctioned VBL in strikeouts with 62, and he’s had double-digit strikeouts in four of his five starts. No pitcher has been more dominant for the Turks (25-19), who begin their playoff run with a quarterfinal series against Staunton this weekend. Game 1 is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. "He’s just been unbelievable," manager Bob Wease said. Once a walk-on at Arizona, Mills now appears to be a pro prospect, and people are talking about how far this kid and his 93 mile-per-hour fastball and devastating 12-6 curveball can go. They’re not only saying that he can be drafted by a major-league club, but that he can make it to the bigs and play for a long time. Wease, who said a Boston Red Sox scout watched Mills last week and liked what he saw, doesn’t expect Mills to be back in town next summer. When Mills asked him if he could play for the Turks again in 2006, Wease just shook him off. "I don’t look for him to be back," Wease said. "It would be a pleasure, but I think he’s going to get drafted awful high. If he puts up the numbers in Arizona like he did here, he won’t be available next year." Arizona assistant coach Mark Wasikowski also thinks Mills will have his name called early in the draft. "If that kid slips past second round next year, I’ll be shocked," he said. "I think that much of Brad Mills. … I expect to see him on TV. I think he’s going to have a heck of a major-league career." It’s ironic that there’s talk about Mills continuing his career after college, because for a time, it seemed possible that it could end before he even put on a college jersey. Mills was second-team all-state in his senior year at Mesa Mountain View High School and drew interest from Arizona and Arizona State as well as several Division II schools and junior colleges, but he received no scholarship offers. Coaches from Arizona and Arizona State told Mills he could join their teams as an invited walk-on. With a 4.2 grade-point average in high school, Mills was eligible for a state program that would pay his tuition at any public college in Arizona – making the decision to walk on at a major program and forego a possible Division II or junior college scholarship easier. Mills chose the Wildcats and was told by then-pitching coach Jeff Morris, who recruited him, that he would have three weeks of fall practice to earn a roster spot. But by the time Mills arrived in Tucson in August 2003, Morris had left for a job as a Cincinnati Reds scout. So much for the three-week grace period. The Arizona coaches told Mills he would have a half-hour session in the bullpen during tryouts in October to prove he was worth a roster spot. "I remember thinking, ‘This could be the last time I throw a baseball competitively,’" Mills, a civil engineering major, said. "I probably would have hung it up. I knew walking in there, I probably had a better chance than at least half of them, but I didn’t know how seriously the coaches took these tryouts, so yeah, there’s always a little bit of doubt. "I was a little bitter and upset. I just thought, ‘Give me my three weeks I was promised, I’ll show what I can do.’ A half-hour bullpen doesn’t do any pitcher justice." Not to worry. "He threw a good breaking ball," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "His fastball was only about 86-87 miles an hour, and he’s not a real big guy in terms of height, but he had a pretty good arm. But breaking balls are what we really seek out. We like guys that throw breaking balls." Mills was the only player from the tryout who got a roster spot and he made the most of it. His work ethic produced quick results. By spring, he had added about 5 miles an hour on his fastball. Mills pitched only 9 2/3 innings his freshman year, but he got on the mound for a third of an inning against Georgia when the Wildcats made the College World Series in 2004. Last season, he pitched only 13 2/3 innings because of a back injury, but Arizona’s coaches saw that he had started to hit 93 miles per hour with his fastball. They also noticed he was ridding himself of the control problems that had plagued him early in his career. After the 2005 season, they rewarded him with a partial scholarship for the living fees and books that aren’t paid for by his academic scholarship. The coaches now have him penciled into the starting rotation for next spring. "We expected this summer to happen," Wasikowski said. "When I talked to Bob Wease before the season started, I told him, ‘You’re going to have the best pitcher you’ve had, possibly ever, this summer.’" Pretty good for a former walk-on.