CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Jeremy Bales' baseball career has had even more movement than one of his sidearm pitches, but the collegiate part of that will end this week at Mason, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, as Lee University again takes part in a season-ending World Series.
This time it's the National Christian College Athletic Association Division I version after years of top-four finishes for the Flames in the NAIA finale in Lewiston, Idaho.
While awaiting full NCAA Division II privileges, the 33-17 Flames are vying with five others in the same situation for NCCAA honors and are seeded third in the 10-team field. Lee is working with the other teams in a project for Matthew 25: Ministries today and will begin pool play at 11 a.m. Wednesday against Toccoa Falls (Ga.), followed by a 4 p.m. game against Lancaster (Pa.).
The top two finishers in each of the two pools move into single-elimination play Friday evening. The championship game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.
His first second season at a college has been a very good one for Bales, who played for Ooltewah and then Red Bank in high school. After pitching well but sparingly for a Flames staff that sent five players to professional baseball in 2013, he has led them in appearances this year with 21 -- all in relief -- and has worked more innings (38) than everyone else except primary starters Jeremy Stawychny and Dustin Lawson.
Bales has a 4-0 record and the team's second best earned run average, 1.18. He gave up only one run in his 10 innings a year ago and gave up only one earned run his first 17 outings this season.
The 23-year-old submariner "has turned out to be a very important part of our pitching staff. He has pitched some of our most important innings," Lee coach Mark Brew said. "And he's a super kid and awesome student-athlete -- he's already in a master's program -- and he's done a great job in a spiritual leadership role this year."
Bales began his college journey at Cleveland State and then spent a season at Chattanooga State before accepting his first NCAA Division II scholarship at Carson-Newman. He had a good fall but tore a labrum in his throwing shoulder and redshirted and then transferred closer to home at Lee.
"I played quarterback in high school and I played summer [base] ball and fall ball [in addition to spring baseball] and played shortstop and pitched," Bales recalled. "That was a lot of wear on my shoulder."
The injury didn't push him to sidearming, however. He had begun that the summer after his junior year at Red Bank, at the suggestion of his Chattanooga Cyclones and senior-year Lions pitching coach, Jamie Tricoglou, a former professional pitcher.
"I threw in the low to mid 80s [mph] over the top, and my dream always has been to play major league baseball," Bales recalled. "Tricoglou said there are millions of right-handed pitchers who throw in the low to mid 80s, and he saw me throw three-quarters at shortstop and suggested I try submarining as something different."
Bales worked on it as a high school senior but had some concerns about drawing interest with a style he was still learning, and Tricoglou told him he could quit the down-under approach if he wanted to.
"But he always told me that if I stuck with it and got it, it could open a lot of doors for me," Bales added, "so I stuck with it, although some people told me not to.
"At Cleveland State I struggled with it a little bit -- I was just starting to get the hang of it."
Control was an issue his freshman year, but he was realizing that his pitches had a lot of movement, so he was starting to get excited about the possibilities. He switched to Chattanooga State not because of any dissatisfaction with the Cougars but more because then-Tigers pitching coach Robert Long had a long pro career with a sidearm delivery. He also liked Carson-Newman when he was there but "knew Lee had a great program" and had played on Olympic Field many times with the Cyclones.
A good if limited first Flames season was followed by an outstanding 2013 summer with the Edenton (N.C.) Steamers in the Coastal Plain League -- considered behind perhaps only the Cape Cod League as a quality college summer league. He broke a 17-year franchise record for relievers' ERA.
"Being at Lee has been great for me," said Bales, who graduated in December with a B.S. degree in physical education and now is working toward being a teacher and coach when he's done pitching. "I felt the Lord was calling me to come here. Since I have been here I have grown a lot in my faith and in talking about the Lord.
"As for my success on the field, I give a lot of credit to our defense. They've made a lot of big plays."
Bales was an NCCAA Mid-East Region honorable-mention selection. Stawychny was co-pitcher of the year with Hiwassee's Chris Large. Lee also was represented on the first team by Lawson, Derrick Pitts, Andres Nelo and Zach Hawkins, with Siosi Poti and Nathan Wierzgac receiving mention as well.
Catcher Alex Huddleston was first-team with Large for Hiwassee, and Dalton Harrrelson and Josh Cassidy earned honorable mention.
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.