C.J. Eldred carving his own path as a Hawkeye
IOWA CITY, Ia. — This is not a story about an emerging ace following his father’s footsteps to success on the University of Iowa pitcher's mound.
That may be what is seen on the surface with C.J. Eldred, whose father, Cal, pitched for his home-state Hawkeyes and went on to a 14-year Major League Baseball career. Son even wears the same jersey number as Dad did at Iowa from 1987 to 1989 – No. 33.
But C.J. Eldred’s journey to wearing and starring in an Iowa uniform has been winding, unlikely and — most of all — long.
Until Eldred, a redshirt sophomore who will turn 21 in May, came on in relief during Iowa’s second game of the season — Feb. 20 at Dallas Baptist — he hadn’t represented his school as a pitcher in almost four years.
“Four years,” Cal Eldred says, “that’s hard enough on us people who are considered adults.”
It was an extreme test of patience for C.J., who spent roughly 20 percent of his life waiting between his last pitch at Mount Vernon High School and his first as a collegian.
His patience has been rewarded. On Friday, the new leader of Iowa’s pitching staff will carry a 2.09 ERA into a Big Ten Conference series-opening game at Minnesota. That Friday-night starting job is the most coveted for any college-baseball pitcher, and at Iowa it now belongs to Eldred.
“If you would’ve told me that was going to happen a couple months ago,” Eldred says, “I’d have told you you were crazy.
Try telling him that one year ago, when Eldred by NCAA rule wasn’t even allowed to practice with the Hawkeyes after transferring from Indiana. As the Hawkeyes rolled up a historic 41-18 season that saw them win their first two NCAA Tournament games in 43 years, Eldred could only watch from a distance.
“He’d come see us on game day,” third-year coach Rick Heller says, “and I’d have to see him outside the fence. It was hard for him.”
Inside the journey
Why four years?
After a knee injury cut short Eldred’s high-school junior year of 2012 to 28 innings, he broke his leg trying to jump over a couch and was limited to playing first base for Mount Vernon in 2013.
He signed as a preferred walk-on at Indiana, but redshirted in 2014 while his leg rebuilt strength.
He then transferred to Iowa as a walk-on after Hoosiers coach Tracy Smith and his staff left to take jobs at Arizona State. "It’s where I always wanted to come," Eldred says. "I saw it as an opportunity to come back home."
But his NCAA appeal for 2015 eligibility with the Hawkeyes was denied a few weeks into the fall semester. It didn’t make sense for Heller to use one of his 35 roster spots on somebody who couldn’t play, so once Iowa’s first game that season began, Eldred couldn't be part of the program.
“It was basically, ‘Here’s a workout plan. Go get it done,’” Eldred says. “It was actually the first time in my life I wasn’t a student-athlete. I was technically just a student. So that was a little interesting.”
Eldred couldn’t practice with the team or use their baseball facilities. He would play catch with rehabbing teammate Jake Reinhardt, who was in the same no-roster-spot boat. His former high school catcher, Connor Welch, also helped out. Even Dad caught him once or twice.
Eldred shook off some rust in the Northwoods League, pitching 112 innings over back-to-back summers for the Eau Claire (Wis.) Express.
Finally, once the first semester of his third college year hit, the right-hander could officially be in the 2016 Hawkeyes' plans.
But as Heller says now, “I wasn’t sure what his role was going to be.”
A sinker-baller's origins
Eldred carries impressive maturity about the journey. His memories of the wait lack bitterness. Like his signature pitch, those level-headed traits may have been developed while tagging along at Cal’s big-league games.
It’s interesting that C.J. Eldred became a calculated sinker-baller; Cal was a pure fastball pitcher, something that helped him get selected No. 17 overall in the 1989 MLB Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It’s not about what most kids think about, what I thought about,” Cal says, “just trying to throw as hard as I could every time.”
It was during Dad’s big-league career that C.J. found his own way of pitching. In July 2008, he was playing catch with then-St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joel Pineiro in a big-league outfield. Pineiro, a noted sinker-baller, noticed sharp movement on Eldred’s throws. So he offered the 13-year-old a new way to grip sinkers and some advice.
"Sinker’s kind of a pitch where if you don’t throw it much, you can kind of lose it real quick,” C.J. says, “So (Pineiro) just told me, you’re going to throw some that aren’t going to move. But you’ve just got to live and die by it.”
Eldred brings five distinct pitches to the table — fastball, sinker, curve, slider and change-up — and emphasizes precision. If the sinker's off, he can adjust. One of the keys to his elevation in the Hawkeyes’ rotation was a velocity bump in early February. Heller noticed he went from throwing 84-87 mph with movement to 88-91 mph.
“He’s a perfect example of how to pitch,” Heller says. “He changes speeds, he can sink the ball, throw off-speed in fastball counts and beat pretty much anybody up the ladder. The young guys think they can just go out and throw hard and throw it by people, and they quickly find out in college that doesn’t work anymore.”
Hawkeye dream fulfilled
Eldred, the oldest of five children, naturally moved around a lot as Cal went 86-74 with three different teams. Eventually Cal retired from pitching in 2005 (he now works for the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals in player development and as an adviser to GM Dayton Moore), and the family settled on a farm outside Mount Vernon. When it came time to pick a college, the Iowa program was a mess. By the time Heller was hired in July 2013, C.J. had signed on with Indiana.
Now he’s not only a Hawkeye, he’s their ace.
When last year’s Friday-night starter, Tyler Peyton, suffered through a forearm trouble in late February, Eldred became a natural choice for the premier role.
“The reason we put him there is because he’s our toughest guy,” Heller says. “And we knew that coming in, that his makeup is that of a Friday-night starter. He’s going to go out as a warrior and battle. He gets a guy in scoring position, he’s going to buckle down."
In his first-ever Big Ten start last week, Eldred outdueled Maryland preseason all-American Mike Shawaryn with a complete-game, 8-1 victory.
Under Heller, Iowa tries to win close games behind pitching and defense. The Hawkeyes have the No. 1 fielding percentage in the Big Ten; a perfect match for a ground-ball pitcher.
“I’m not going to strike a whole lot of guys out. Maybe I could if I really wanted to, but … I don’t want to be at 100 pitches in five innings,” says Eldred, who has allowed just three extra-base hits (all doubles) in his team-high 38 2/3 innings with 27 strikeouts. “Especially throwing Friday night, I want to get deep in ballgames. That way we have a full bullpen for the rest of the weekend.”
The Hawkeyes started slower than a year ago, but have won four of their last five to get to 10-12. The pitching staff is taking shape, with a healthier Peyton going on Saturdays. Iowa's goal remains winning the Big Ten, which isn’t as strong as it was a year ago when a record five teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
A familiar last name is leading the Hawkeyes' charge, even if his journey was completely unique.
“My wife (Christi) said this the other day: It’s cool to see him play at a school where I played, yet he’s doing it in his own way,” says Cal, who intended to see his son pitch as a Hawkeye for the second time on Friday.
“It’s not like he’s following in my footsteps. It doesn’t feel like that. This is his own path, and that’s the way it should be.”
IOWA BASEBALL THIS WEEKEND
Matchup: Iowa (10-12, 2-1 Big Ten) at Minnesota (13-9, 0-0), three-game series
Where: Siebert Field, Minneapolis
Times, TV: Friday, 3:05 p.m. (BTN Plus); Saturday, 2:05 p.m. (BTN Plus); Sunday, 2:05 p.m. (BTN)
Radio: KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City
Series notes: This is the Hawkeyes first road trip to face the Gophers since 2012. … Iowa has won nine of its last 10 Big Ten series. … Iowa hit 14 home runs last season in 59 games; it has 13 in 22 games this season, including four in Tuesday’s 12-3 win over Northern Illinois. … Minnesota recently won two of three games at Missouri State, an opponent that swept Iowa earlier this season. The Gophers lead the Big Ten with a .333 batting average. … Iowa freshman outfielder Robert Neustrom is hitting .479 over his last 10 games.