Alec Marsh Finds Confidence and Curveball in Return to Wisconsin
April 4th, 2017, it was the date Arizona State Freshman and Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, Alec Marsh, had been waiting for since he graduated Ronald Reagan College Preparatory High School a little less than a year ago. He finally had a chance to start his first collegiate baseball game.
The whole day was a whirlwind, both figuratively and literally. Marsh walked into Earl Wilson Stadium, home of the UNLV Rebels, as a cacophonous mix of adrenaline, jitters, and minor tendinitis. Plus, the weather certainly didn't do any favors. In the pre-game report, the wind was listed southwest at a gusting 22 miles-per-hour, though Marsh said, it felt more “like 50.”
In the top of the first, two singles set up first and third with two outs, and even though Marsh got out of the jam unscathed, he was rattled.
Leading off the top of the second inning, the Rebels Bryson Stott, who’s now, funny enough, starring as a member of the Northwoods League South Division juggernaut, Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, led off with a double in the right centerfield gap.
From there, a two-run homer, three more singles and a bases loaded walk in the second, and another two-run homer in the third ended Marsh’s day after recording just six outs. His final line, nine hits, five runs, and one walk while facing fifteen batters.
“It was a pretty rough start,” Marsh said. “I was just trying to be too cute with things…I was a freshman; I got to start a game. Maybe, I was a little too excited.”
When manager, and acting pitching coach, Tracy Smith, sat Marsh down after the game, the 27-year coaching veteran whose most recent MLB successes feature the Chicago Cubs, Kyle Schwarber, and Oakland Athletics, Josh Phegley, was disappointed. But, he knew it’d be valuable lesson for the young, far from home pitcher
“The coaches trusted me that game to start, and I didn't see the field for a little bit after that, but it just made me work harder to get back on the field,” Marsh said. “It was kind of a wake-up call. Growing up in Wisconsin, high school baseball isn't as talented as the PAC 12, not nearly.”
It was a little over a month later, May 5th, when Marsh made his next in-game appearance for the Sun Devils. He surrendered three runs and four hits in three innings against a Wildcat club that finished 38-21 this season and was fresh off a runner-up finish in Omaha last year.
He followed that up with 3.1 more innings of two-hit, one-run ball against the Wildcats on April 20th and a one inning, two earned run finale against Utah on April 28th. It wasn’t perfect, but Marsh and his coaches were pleased with how he bounced back.
“After my exit meeting, [the coaches] said I’d progressed a lot that year,” Marsh said. “After the UNLV start and after I didn't play for a little bit, my best numbers were towards the second half of the year.”
He took that momentum, plus his new understanding of the mindset and work ethic it takes to be a consistently dominant Division 1 pitcher, to the Lakeshore Chinooks in what was a very welcome return to his home state and city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“I’m very grateful that I got to come so close to home and I got to see plenty of family and friends. It was exactly what I needed after a tough year at Arizona State,” he said.
Though, nestling back into his old bed didn't mean he’d morphed overnight into the same pitcher who’d dominated the state of Wisconsin with a 1.21 ERA and .470 batting average his senior year.
During his first six outings with the Chinooks, which were all out of the bullpen, he surrendered 14 earned runs over just 10.2 innings.
Marsh knew better than to give in. Instead, those struggles drove him harder every day.
“I think the biggest thing is coming to the park every day and doing everything with a purpose,” he said. “No matter how bad I feel that day, I’m still doing the normal stuff I do every day. I have a routine.”
That routine includes running poles, rigorous ab exercises, and depending on the day, a bullpen session. The most impressive thing, he might be the only Chinook—outside the naturally sweaty Rylan Thomas—who works up a sweat every single day.
“It’s really easy to say I'm done, I wanna go home,” he said. “It’s even harder to say I’m going to grind through it and I’m going to get better. That’s what my mindset, I wanna be here, I’m grateful for being here, and I’m going to work on what I have to work on.”
Eventually, it paid off. Marsh got his first start of the summer against the Rockford Rivets on July 6th—just five days after facing them on July 1st and giving up three runs in 0.2 innings—but this time he methodically worked through a dangerous Rivet lineup and finished the day with five strong innings of three-hit, three-run ball.
“I’m thankful [the coaches] gave me the start,” Marsh said postgame. “I had a mindset of coming back here and trying to put this team in the dirt. It’s good things for me. I'm just gonna go from there.”
The one blemish on an otherwise sterling performance was his walk count. He ended the day with six free passes, three of which scored runs. However, he didn’t see it as a total negative. Walks he could control, at least they weren't getting hits.
“Next outing, if I could keep the walks down, I can take in into the 8th,” he said. “Get ahead in counts, stop walking guys, I mean I gave up two outs in six innings. They weren't hitting me.”
It’s almost like those postgame words were a promise. In his next outing, at home against the Wisconsin Woodchucks, he went eight shutout innings gave up only five hits and walked two.
From there, Marsh only got better.
Over his next three starts, which included a shutout against that same Rockford team on July 27th, he gave up just one earned run over 22 innings.
In total, since the start at Rockford, he’s thrown 30 innings, and given up just one earned run while allowing 17 hits, 7 walks, and striking out 30.
More than just his arm, his glove has been almost golden. Against Rockford the first time, he snagged a screaming liner off his shoetops for a highlight year putout. Not to be outdone, his second time against the Rivets he recorded five putouts including two behind the back snags.
“When I came here, I was coming off [tendinitis] in my elbow. I just had to take a little time off I think it just took me more than a few innings to zone in and get everything going again. Obviously, I found it,” he said.
But, Marsh will be the first to admit that health and hard work aren't the only two things that have turned him into an ace on this Lakeshore staff. His teammates, especially three-year Chinook veteran and current Texas Rangers prospect, Parker Sanburn, were critical in helping him regain his confidence on the mound.
When Marsh first saw Sanburn pitch, he was astonished by a few things. Firstly, his odd appearance. Sanburn wore thick, plastic goggles and had a long, almost two-foot long glove string swaying from side-to-side as he went through his wind-up. However, what really got Marsh’s attention was what happened when the ball left Sanburn’s hand.
“His curveball was insane,” Marsh said. “As soon as I saw his curveball, I knew I needed to talk to him and figure it out.”
The next day, Marsh went up to Sanburn, a redshirt senior and, to the freshman Marsh, baseball veteran, for a lesson. And, Sanburn, with his always friendly and approachable demeanor, was happy to oblige.
The two worked on Marsh’s curveball every other day until Sanburn left in mid-July to join the ranks of the professionals. It was an experience Marsh described as, “ a big help in turning my curveball around.”
Though, Marsh gleaned more than just curveball tips from the wile vet. Perhaps what brought the two together was their similar work ethics. Sanburn too had a specific, sweat-inducing pre-game routine he would religiously complete each day he arrived at Kapco Park.
He was the perfect model of what it takes to be a pro, but even more importantly, he, along with the rest of the bullpen, showed Marsh how to relax, let loose and have fun.
“There are times where you have got to be grinding and zone in,” Marsh said. “But, when I'm done with that, it’s very relaxed. [This team has] taught me it’s just a game and there’s nothing be nervous or worried about. I’m playing the game I love, and I’m playing it with some great people. Pretty much what I’ve learned, have fun.”
Marsh hopes to take all of the lesson’s he’s learning through the long, grueling Northwoods League, along with his on the mound confidence and dominance, back to his collegiate dessert paradise in Tempe, Arizona this fall. But, simply put, he only wants one thing. He wants to be the best.
“I want to be the best pitcher when I got back to Arizona. I wanna get myself out there; I wanna be known,” he said. “I want to be the best starter on the team. We got really good guys [at Arizona State], so it’s taking pride in what I do here, and every single day I play baseball. I want to be better than the guys I’m playing with.”