Before each inning, Matt Hockenberry stands on the mound and looks out toward his teammates.
The burly 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound right-hander scans the entire field, looking each one of his position players in the eyes.
“They know that there’s confidence on the mound,” Hockenberry said.
Through Friday’s start against Central Florida, the confidence is mostly justified.
Even after last Friday’s setback of six earned runs in six innings in Temple’s 6-4 loss at Central Florida, Hockenberry’s record sits at 3-1 with a 3.12 ERA in 40.1 innings pitched.
“It’s a feeling of satisfaction,” Hockenberry said. “I know my success solely comes off of how I feed off of my team.”
Hockenberry started through much of his freshman and sophomore seasons but was relegated to the bullpen last year – only starting during midweek games.
A high-energy competitor, “Hock,” as he’s known to teammates, said it didn’t sit well when he wasn’t given the opportunity to take the hill as a starter on the weekends last season.
“To be completely honest, every time I didn’t get the nod for a start it was a huge confidence loss, just personally,” Hockenberry said. “When things weren’t going the right way I was sitting there itching, waiting for the chance to do it and get the start again.”
“I penalized myself because I wasn’t ever prepared to come out of the bullpen even though that’s what my role was for the day,” Hockenberry added.
This year is different. With the loss of Eric and Patrick Peterson, who both transferred after the Board of Trustees voted to cut the team in December, Hockenberry knows that every Friday the ball will be in his hands for game No. 1 of the weekend. His elevated role has fueled him to early-season successes.
“Now that I know that every Friday I get to go out there and tickle four pitches around the dish and keep hitters off-balance for seven-plus innings, I can mentally prepare all week to go out and have fun on Fridays,” Hockenberry said.
When Ryan Wheeler first took over as head coach two seasons ago, he says he saw a sophomore that was mostly interested in striking everyone out. Wheeler didn’t think Hockenberry was a complete pitcher.
“What he needed to do was learn how to pitch, and I think last year was that big transformation where he was learning how to do that,” Wheeler said. “In order to try to put him in positions where he could have success we started started him in the middle of the week and used him out of the bullpens on the weekend. I think he really grew a lot as a pitcher.”
“He’s come back here now a guy that’s completely different than he was two years ago,” Wheeler added.
Wheeler also sees the difference in Hockenberry as a person. During his sophomore season, Wheeler said Hockenberry was the type of player who was only concerned about doing his own work.
Now he leads by example, always being one of the first players in line to do running or one of the first pitchers up to throw their bullpen sessions.
Hockenberry credits a lot of his transformation to maturing as a player but also to the work he has put in with pitching coach Brian Pugh. There’s been a steady decline in Hockenberry’s ERA during the past three seasons.
It also helps, especially this year, that Hockenberry shares a home with his catcher, fellow senior Andrew Nist.
Nist, who said there’s never a dull moment between the two players at home, has watched Hockenberry go from a struggling bullpen arm last year into a flourishing ace this season.
“It’s just been really cool to see him develop more as a person, which has translated to his performance on the field,” Nist said. “Changing small habits, seeing that transformation and learning how to visualize being successful rather than worrying about, ‘Am I going to start this weekend?’ He knows he’s getting the ball every Friday night, that psychological aspect of his success this season – it’s a big reason.”
Hockenberry said it’s a valuable asset to be able to have Nist living with him. After his recent performance against Hartford, when he gave up no runs on five hits while striking out six over 8.2 innings, the two shared some laughs and joked about what they could have done differently.
“When you get to talk about those things together it kind of opens up your mind and all the other doors to what can work in the future,” Hockenberry said.
Before Friday, Wheeler talked about Hockenberry not being hit around yet and thought that when it happened, he’d cope with it much different than he may have in previous years.
“I’m sure he’ll handle it in a positive way, that’s baseball,” Wheeler said. “He’ll go prepare himself for the next start and go right out there and do what he’s been doing all year.”
Jeffrey Neiburg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.