Lala sings song of success

BY SETH ROBERTS | APRIL 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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Patrick Lala was in a jam.

The junior right-handed reliever had two men on base with two out. Two runs had scored in the inning on two doubles and a pair of walks, and Lala was just trying to escape without further damage.

He got the sign from catcher Tyson Blaser, reared back, and whipped the ball to the plate. Batter Justin Scanlon swung but could only loft a gentle fly ball to right field. Ball game.

The ninth inning was the only frame of Iowa’s victory over Michigan State on Sunday in which the Spartans gave Lala any problems. The Marion native threw three perfect innings before running into trouble in his fourth, and those three innings were much more indicative of his season.

Armed with a low-90s fastball and knee-buckling slider, the 20-year-old is what baseball types consider a power pitcher — and he has used his arsenal to blow away opposing hitters all season. Lala boasts a team-best 1.37 ERA through 192⁄3 innings, and he has held opposing hitters to a measly .167 batting average. He has been particularly good against left-handed hitters, who are batting just .083 against him.

Not bad for a guy who faced junior-college batters last season.

Lala transferred to Iowa after two seasons at Kirkwood Community College, where he was a two-time All-Region honoree for an otherwise underwhelming Eagle team. While he admitted he wasn’t sure what to expect from Division-I opposition, he said he isn’t completely surprised by his superb numbers.

“After I got a few outings under my belt, I definitely thought the type of year I’ve been having was possible,” he said. “The coaches believed in me, too, so that helped my mental approach.”

He still isn’t perfect, though. He has suffered from occasional flashes of wildness, with two wild pitches and three hit batsmen. He has also issued 17 walks, second only to starter Matt Dermody’s 18 — and Dermody has thrown almost twice as many innings as Lala.

In his first few appearances this year, the 6-2, 190-pound righty tended to nibble at the corners of the strike zone with his slider and splitter instead of pounding the zone with his fastball.

“I can’t tell you how many times he was 0-2 and would go to 3-2 and end up walking the guy,” head coach Jack Dahm said on Sunday. “It was driving us crazy. He was trying to be too fine, and he may have given too much credit to the hitters.”

Ever since pitching coach Chris Maliszewski helped Lala tweak his approach and tighten his slider, though, the young fireballer has been nearly unstoppable. He handcuffed the potent Spartan lineup and was only touched up when his pitch count rose above 45 and he appeared to run out of gas.

“That’s what we expect from [him] every time he goes out,” Blaser said after the game. “He’s going to fill up the zone, and guys are going to have a hard time getting good swings on him.”

His improvement hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff — and Dahm said he still thinks Lala has untapped potential.

“He’s just getting settled in,” the eighth-year coach said. “It’s so important for our ball club to have a power guy come out of the bullpen … if he makes them swing the bat, he’s going to be very, very good for us.”

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