It was the bottom of the eighth inning March 7, 2015, in Cary, North Carolina, and an upset was in the making.
The Pitt Panthers were facing the No. 1 team in the country — the eventual College World Series champion Virginia Cavaliers. The stands were packed with MLB scouts hoping to catch a glimpse of Cavaliers left-hander Nathan Kirby, Baseball America’s No. 2 junior pitching prospect in the country.
Kirby was dominant as usual, but the scouts’ attention had shifted to the 6-foot-7 sophomore who was still on the mound for Pitt, finishing off yet another inning of carving through Virginia’s bats.
As the towering right-hander walked back to the dugout after tossing eight shutout innings in a 1-0 win over the previously undefeated Cavaliers, the scouts had to be scrambling through their notes and asking each other, “Who is this guy?”
That guy was T.J. Zeuch, starting pitcher for the Pitt baseball team. He’d come a long way since high school, where he was already considered draft-worthy, but still had a lot of developing to do.
The Kansas City Royals selected Zeuch out of high school in the 31st round of the 2013 MLB Draft. It was the same franchise that drafted his father 34 years earlier.
Unlike his father, Zeuch — now a junior — passed up the opportunity, choosing instead to attend college, where he’s developed into Pitt’s ace and one of the most heralded pitching prospects in the country. Baseball America ranked him the No. 7 draft prospect in the ACC and the No. 41 overall prospect in Division I to start the 2016 season.
Zeuch’s father coached his son from the very first time he picked up a glove, but made sure not to push him too hard too fast. He knew firsthand what the consequences could be.
The National Pastime
Every day, kids all across America step up to the imaginary plate in their backyard and pretend they’re hitting the game-winning home run in the World Series.
Things are no different in the Zeuch family, except the kids picture recording the final out instead.
Tim Zeuch, T.J.’s father, wanted to be a baseball player since he was four years old. He pursued that dream for the next 20 years of his life, growing up in Los Angeles and playing college ball at nearby California State University, Northridge.
A 6-foot-6 hurler with a wipeout slider, Tim excelled at CSUN, prompting the Royals to select him in the 1979 draft.
Tim spent three years pitching in the Royals’ minor league system, and by age 24, he had worked his way all the way up to the Triple-A class. But a torn rotator cuff ended his season and, effectively, his career.
With his baseball career abruptly cut short, Tim got into sales and moved from Los Angeles to the Cincinnati area in 1987 with his wife, Lisa, and their toddler son, Jason.
Jason would grow up to be a pretty good swimmer, but in 1995, Tim and Lisa welcomed their third child and second son, T.J.
Timothy J. Zeuch was born on August 1, 1995, in Mason, Ohio, about 20 minutes north of Cincinnati. Like his father, Zeuch wanted to be a baseball player, and, like his father, a pitcher, for as long as he can remember.
“I was probably about five years old when I started throwing a baseball,” Zeuch said. “Before my hand was big enough to even hold it.”
Zeuch took up pitching right from the beginning, but his first coach was skeptical.
“When I was younger, when I signed up for my first team, my mom told the [coach] I was a pitcher,” Zeuch said. The coach sarcastically responded, “Everyone’s a pitcher.”
“He kind of didn’t believe her. It’s funny to reflect on that at this point,” Zeuch said.
As a kid, Zeuch watched and emulated St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright. It’s not a surprising choice, given that both are imposing right-handers who cast a large shadow on the mound over opposing batters.
Wainwright and, more recently, Clayton Kershaw, are the only major league pitchers Zeuch said he has patterned himself after. Of course, he didn’t have to look far for a professional pitcher to learn the craft from — he was raised by one.
Zeuch’s father was either his head coach or pitching coach until he was about 15 years old, when he joined a team that had its own pitching coach.
“He kind of stepped back and allowed them to work with me on the field,” Zeuch said. “But then at home and off the field, he would work with me still, and he still does today. He still talks to me all the time about mechanics and pitching.”
Tim took all the precautions necessary to make sure his son wouldn’t meet the same fate he did.
“I was the one who worked with him exclusively,” Tim said. “I was still involved in taking care of his arm, making sure he was iced, making sure he threw the right number of innings and pitches.”
Knowing the dangers that curveballs and sliders present to young throwing arms, Tim didn’t just wait until Zeuch was a certain age and assume he was ready to throw them. He needed proof.
“I was actually like 15 or 16 years old when I started throwing a real breaking ball. My dad was very careful with that,” Zeuch said. “So he really didn’t teach me to throw it until we had actually gone to an orthopedist and got an X-ray.”
The X-ray showed that his growth plates were properly sealed, and Tim had assurance that his son was ready to learn the curveball.
Now, “the curveball is probably my best pitch,” Zeuch said.
Narrowing his Focus
Zeuch stopped playing all other sports during his junior year of high school to focus on baseball. It’s no coincidence that’s when the scouts started showing up.
Zeuch posted a 2.15 earned run average his junior year at William Mason High School, where he was part of a “dream team” staff with fellow future ACC pitchers Andrew McDonald of Virginia Tech and Rodney Hutchison of University of North Carolina.
“It was just an unbelievable staff, a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent,” said Curt Bly, Zeuch’s former varsity assistant coach and now the head coach at William Mason. “T.J. was obviously right at the front of that, and we knew without a doubt that we were going to have an opportunity to win every game.”
College scouts started to watch Zeuch pitch more and more during his junior year, but after they got a look at him at a showcase that summer, things really took off.
“That’s when Pitt actually first saw me in about June or July,” Zeuch said. “I played in a showcase, and I threw really well, and everyone kind of jumped on me then.”
He faced three batters at the East Coast Pro Showcase, striking out two and inducing weak contact against the other.
“I was throwing pretty hard for a high school kid,” Zeuch said. “Nothing spectacular but enough to get guys’ attention with my size as well.”
Zeuch lowered his ERA to a miniscule 0.62 his senior season and was named first-team All-League, All-City and All-Region along with second-team All-State.
Zeuch, McDonald and Hutchison helped lead William Mason to a 26-0 record to start the season until losing in the regional semifinals and finishing 26-1. But not before Zeuch pitched a complete game in the district championship to get them there.
“They just totally didn’t have a chance in that one,” Bly said.
After high school, Kansas City selected Zeuch in the 31st round of the 2013 MLB Draft. The Royals would go on to reach the World Series in 2014 and win it in 2015, but not with Zeuch as a member of the organization.
“We didn’t want him to sign for anything other than life-altering money,” Tim said.
Zeuch passed up signing with Kansas City to go to college and play for Pitt, where he has transformed from a “17-year-old kid with a lot of developing to do,” as he put it, into the team’s bona fide ace.
Zeuch said he passed on signing for two big reasons.
“One, I was a 17-year-old kid. I wasn’t ready to be totally on my own in the real world yet, and I knew that I had a lot more development to do, had to get a lot better before I was ready to face professional hitters,” Zeuch said. “Two, the signing bonus wasn’t enough for me to have skipped college and skip that experience.”
Making the Leap
When he arrived at Pitt, Zeuch was just a “thrower,” Pitt pitching coach Jerry Oakes said.
“But now, he’s learning how to pitch, use his lower half more and understand sequences, and that’s what you have to do in this league,” Oakes said. “You can’t just go up there and throw fastballs. You’ve gotta be able to throw off-speed behind in the count.”
Zeuch said the ability to keep his composure when things go wrong has been the biggest difference in his game since coming to Pitt.
“I think the biggest leap I’ve made here is mentally,” Zeuch said. “I’ll always have room to improve. I think a changeup is really my biggest thing that I need to work on now.”
While his head coach agrees that his changeup still needs some work, he says he hasn’t come across a pitcher in his 19 seasons at Pitt that quite compares to Zeuch.
“Not in terms of the full package, you know. I mean he’s a pitcher. He knows how to pitch,” Pitt head coach Joe Jordano said. “He has command of three pitches, and he’s polished … he throws downhill with movement, throws a really good slider, throws a get-me-over breaking ball.
“If he develops a changeup, he’s going to be special.”
In his first five starts after missing the first month of the season with a nagging groin injury, Zeuch is 4-0 with a 3.27 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 33 innings. All of his starts have been against ACC opponents, including three against ranked teams.
“I have a job to do. That’s just to go throw strikes and keep the ball down,” Zeuch said. “And I [have to] do the same thing, whether it’s against Clemson, Notre Dame or the New York Yankees. And it’s the same thing every time I go out there.”
After pitching his team to victory in freezing temperatures against Georgia Tech, Zeuch didn’t hurry to get inside the warm clubhouse. A throng of little kids surrounded him in the bleachers, eagerly awaiting autographs.
“He cares about other people and what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling, and he doesn’t have an ego,” Tim said about his son. “I think in some ways I’m probably living through him at this point, but … if he does get hurt and doesn’t make it or ends up being an attorney, that’s OK too.”