Not Much to Look At

06/30/2009 – Daily News Record

But Simpson’s Build Deceives

Written By Marcus Helton Daily News Record

HARRISONBURG – Ali Simpson doesn’t exactly strike the most imposing figure on the mound, given his youthful appearance and the 165 pounds stretched across his 6-foot, 2-inch frame.

“[Hitters] probably think, like, they can take big swings up there, just because I don’t throw as hard, or whatever,” the Harrisonburg Turks pitcher said Monday. “I bet they do a little bit. I mean, it’s natural to, and I look pretty young, too, so I bet they grip the bat a bit tighter and swing a bit harder.”

Once the left-handed Canadian starts throwing, though, their attitudes change quickly.

“Ali, when you look at him, you think he’d be playing little league baseball,” Turks manager Bob Wease joked. “But when he gets out on the mound, he is the man.”

Utilizing his curveball and an array of off-speed pitches, Simpson earned Baseball America/Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honors at Division I Bethune-Cookman University this spring. This summer, he’s added to a pitching staff that Wease is calling the best he’s ever had.

After earning non-decisions in his first two starts for the Turks, Simpson picked up his first Valley League victory in a 7-0 win over Waynesboro on Saturday. He allowed five hits through five innings, striking out five and walking three. In 14 1/3 innings this season, he has a 3.14 ERA with 12 strikeouts and nine walks.

Simpson is a native of Campbell River, British Columbia, which he said is located, “an hour drive and an hour and a half ferry ride,” from Vancouver. Although he’s been playing baseball since he was eight years old, he admits the game isn’t exactly popular where he lives.

“Soccer is a big sport, but it’s mostly hockey,” he said. “It’s a hockey town.”

Simpson’s high school – Carihi Secondary – didn’t offer a baseball team, so he played for the Parksville Royals of the 12-team British Columbia Premier Baseball League.

“It’s a club team, but it goes during the high school year,” he said. “It’s for high school-age kids, but it’s for the whole province. It’s like a state team, I guess.”

As a senior in 2008, Simpson went 5-7 and struck out 121 batters while walking 41 and posting a 1.93 ERA in 79 innings.

Simpson attracted Bethune-Cookman coach Mervyl Melendez’s attention that summer while pitching for Team British Columbia in the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Tournament in Jupiter, Fla. Melendez was scouting current Turk pitcher Rayan Gonzalez on Team Puerto Rico when he saw Simpson.

“It was kind of a coincidence,” Melendez said by phone recently. “I loved him from the start. … I said, ‘You know what, he’s skinny, but if he gains some weight, he could be much better.’ I saw that there was a lot of potential in him, and I still think he’s going to get a lot better than what he is right now.”

Simpson said the move from British Columbia to Bethune-Cookman – a historically black school located in Daytona, Florida – wasn’t as jarring as people might imagine.

“A lot of people say it’s super far away,” he said, “but it’s really only a plane flight away once you get on the plane, like going any other place. Culturally, it’s about the same. Bethune-Cookman is an all-black school, so that was a bit of a change, I guess. But other than that, it was pretty much the same.”

The biggest adjustment came on the field where Simpson was facing hitters with metal bats. The BCPBL was a wooden bat league. That forced Simpson to change his approach a little bit, and focus more on locating his pitches to avoid the larger sweet spots that metal bats have.

It didn’t take long for him to find a groove. In his first college start, he struck out nine while allowing six hits in 6 2/3 innings in a 10-4 win over Southern University. Serving as the team’s No. 2 starter, Simpson went on to go 9-2 – at one point, posting seven consecutive wins – with a 3.23 ERA, 79 strikeouts and 32 walks.

“At any level, whenever you can throw two or three pitches for a strike, you’re going to be successful,” Melendez said, “and that’s what he did. He kept the hitters off balance, and his fastball kind of rises up a little bit – it kind of sneaks up on you. He doesn’t throw 90, but it looks faster to a hitter than what it actually is because of his breaking ball. I think that’s what’s deceiving about him, and it’s good, it works out in our favor now.”

Melendez said he’d like Simpson to fine-tune his pitching this summer in hopes of potentially moving him into the No. 1 starter’s role next year. Simpson said he’d like to improve his velocity – his fastball tops out in the mid-80’s – and perfect his changeup.

“He knows how to switch speeds real well,” Wease said. “He’s got a real nice curveball, and he just knows how to go in and up, down and out on a batter. He’s just a good pitcher.”

Even if he doesn’t always look the part. Marcus Helton Sports Writer Sports Department 540-574-6285