The first thing Eau Claire Express fans might have noticed differently about pitcher Taylor Duree this year compared to last year was his long black flow spilling out the back of his cap.
But as soon as he took the mound for the first time, his hair become an afterthought to those who remember him from 2013.
The catcher’s mit had an extra pop, and the radar gun read more than 90 miles per hour the first fastball he threw.
“I’m throwing a little bit harder this summer than I did last summer,” the New Mexico sophomore said. “Our throwing program (at New Mexico) has a lot of long toss. We throw all the time just to strengthen the arm.”
Indeed, the second-year Express pitcher, who moved to the bullpen after starting nine games for Field Manager Dale Varsho last year, increased his velocity about five to six miles per hour, making him an entirely different pitcher.
But it’s not just the speed. Last year, as the Northwoods League is good for, Duree learned things in Eau Claire he carried over to New Mexico this year and the rest of his pitching career in general.
“Throw a lot of strikes,” Duree said. “I learned it’s nice to strike people out, but it’s easier to just let them hit the ball and make contact and let the defense play behind you.”
It’s not like Duree was a wild man last summer. In 53.2 innings on the mound, he struck out 34 batters compared to just 21 walks. But this year, he’s been one of the top relievers in the Northwoods League.
Duree has already matched his win total from a season ago with two, and his 1.77 earned run average is one of the best in the league. But the real stat line that jumps out is that in 20.1 innings of work, he’s struck out 23 hitters.
“Taylor Duree has looked pretty darn good,” Varsho said. “He has that three quarter slot, the ball runs and he’s picked up a little velocity since last summer, so it’s fun to watch him.”
Eau Claire hasn’t been the only place Duree elevated his game. In his sophomore campaign at New Mexico, he led the co-Mountain West Conference champion Lobos in relief appearances with 29.
He went 2-0 with a 3.55 ERA and was a big part of the Lobo bullpen that went 31-0 when leading in the sixth inning and 33-0 when leading after eight.
New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham noticed a change in Duree, and with the the help of pitching coach Dan Spencer, Duree became one of his most reliable relievers. Birmingham believes the potential with Duree is quite high.
“Taylor had to make several changes on his delivery during his freshman year,” Birmingham said. “Under (Dan) Spencer’s direction, he bought in and will be a professional ball player as a result.”
For Duree, the switch to the bullpen wasn’t necessarily a hard one, and it’s a similar path former Express player Matt Trowbridge took. Trowbridge, who played for the team in 2012 and 2013, was a starter his first year before becoming the closer.
“Being a reliever, you don’t really know when you’re going to pitch,” Duree said. “You have to be ready to go all the time, and that’s probably my favorite part about relieving is you get to pitch a lot of games.”
First, Duree has a goal to lead his Lobos to Omaha to play in the College World Series. But if he keeps going down the same path as Trowbridge and rides out the potential Birmingham believes he has, things could go quite well for him. Coincidentally, or not, Trowbridge was taken in the 13th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft by the Orioles.
“I want to play baseball as long as possible,” Duree said. “So I’ll ride this thing out.”