FAIRFIELD — One of his starting pitchers was injured and Fairfield University rookie head coach Bill Currier decided it was time to see if his resume-rich freshman pitcher was all he was cracked up to be.
EJ Ashworth had brought some solid credentials with him from Amity High School in Woodbridge and had spent the last couple of summers refining his craft playing for the Connecticut Bombers in North Franklin. However, despite his previous success as a starter, Currier decided that with the Stags, Ashworth would be more comfortable coming out of the bullpen.
Just five games into the 2012 season, one of Currier’s pitchers got hurt and couldn’t make his scheduled start against Fordham. So Currier gave the ball to Ashworth. In three innings against the Rams, he allowed just two hits and two runs with three strikeouts — earning another start a week later against St. John’s, which went on to become an NCAA Super Regional finalist.
In four innings against the Red Storm, Ashworth gave up just two hits and one run while striking out four.
Currier didn’t need to see anything more.
Welcome to the starting rotation, Mr. Ashworth.
Now, nearing the end of his junior season, the 6-foot-4 right-hander has helped the Stags amass a program-record 28 victories in 2014 and earn a place in the upcoming MAAC tournament for the second time in three years. In 12 starts this season, Ashworth is 5-2 with a 2.96 ERA and 42 strikeouts. He hasn’t lost since March 15 at Delaware.
“EJ is a competitor. He’s a bulldog on the mound,” Currier said. “He does not like to give in or to lose. He even hates to come out when he`s tired. With that type of mentality, he gets the most out of his ability. He locates well, he mixes speeds … he’s a pitcher.
“He pounds the strike zone and the only time he gets in trouble is when he misses spots when he’s trying to pick a little bit. You know he’s going to throw his heart out there on the mound.”
Among his highlights this season are seven innings of four-hit, two-run ball at Richmond; five innings of one-run ball at George Mason; eight innings of one-run ball at Niagara; seven innings of one-run ball against Monmouth; and 8-plus innings of shutout ball at Siena.
“It just comes from confidence, knowing that I can throw a strike and knowing that if they hit it, my defense is going to make the play,” Ashworth said. “That’s why I’m able to pitch like that, because I know that I’m going to get a ground ball and they’re going to make the play behind me. I’m more experienced and I’m not giving up hits in certain counts. I know where to pitch guys.”
He is not a power pitcher. According to Fairfield pitching coach Trevor Brown, Ashworth tops out at about 88 with his fastball, but he throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball and change-up along with a solid curve. He ranks fourth all-time at Fairfield in career ERA (3.10), is tied for 12th with career wins (13), and is fourth overall in fewest walks per nine innings (2.27).
“He’s very smart and he competes at a whole other level. His heart … he’s got one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “When I first saw him pitching (as a freshman), you could tell he had a different demeanor than everyone else. I saw him a bunch in high school and I always knew that he’d be good.”
Ashworth first started playing when he was 3 years old in the T-ball league at Orange Park. As a senior at Amity High, he went 8-3 with a 1.30 ERA. Last summer, he pitched for the Sanford (Maine) Mainers in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, and this summer he will pitch for the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Mohawks in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
But before any of that, Ashworth will try to get the Stags (28-21, 13-7 MAAC) a conference tournament championship.
“He’s certainly one of our best and he’s a guy we want out there on the mound in a big game,” Currier said. “He understands where he needs to put the pitches to be successful. And he turns it over to his defense. He’s not going to strike out a lot, but he’s going to make them swing at the ball and put the ball in play. He competes as hard as any kid on our team.”