*** This story was originally published the week of May 19, 2014. ***
If being a senior in college baseball is a bad thing, nobody told James Farris.
When the Houston Astros called Farris’ name with the first pick of the 15th round in last summer’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, it would have been easy for the pitcher to sign the way most juniors do when given the opportunity.
No one would have blamed him.
After all, Farris went undrafted – hardly recruited by Division I schools – out of high school. He pitched in just two games as a freshman before coming out of nowhere to earn a spot in the starting rotation in 2012. Later that season, he started the national championship game, and as a junior he polished his pitching prowess enough to be one of the first 450 players – high school or college – selected by a Major League organization.
Yet when the opportunity presented itself, Farris decided it was in his best interest to finish out his career as an Arizona Wildcat. In baseball terms, he was bidding for a complete game – something Farris is accustomed to on the mound.
“Someday I hope I can give him as much as much as he’s given me,” head coach Andy Lopez said. “I truly mean that. He has given me and this program so much. He is one of the best people that I have coached in 32 years.”
To fully appreciate Farris’ journey, you have to go back to his high school days, which began at Nettleton High School in Jonesboro, Ark. Following his sophomore year, Farris transferred to Highland High School in Gilbert, Ariz. He won seven games with a 2.52 earned run average that season, but was hardly a top prospect.
In fact, Lopez watched Farris pitch only once before he showed up on the Arizona campus in the fall of 2010. That happened to be a single summer outing when Farris was playing for a scout team of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
It was enough to earn a spot with the Wildcats after his senior year, but few others were impressed. Farris admits that his options were to come to Arizona, or play for a junior college after he graduated from Highland.
Once on campus, Farris found himself lost in the mix of a deep pitching staff behind the likes of eventual All-American Kurt Heyer, All-Pac-12 honoree Kyle Simon and 2012 College World Series All-Tournament team member Konner Wade. That left Farris with just two total appearances as a rookie.
But working his way onto the field was not the biggest challenge Farris faced as a young collegian.
The toughest opponents Farris faced in his early college years were off the field.
In the span of a year, three members of Farris’ family were stricken with cancer. During his freshman season, his grandmother, Nonnie, passed away from the disease. In December of that year, a tumor was found in the chest of his sister, Jordan, which resulted in chemotherapy. And a year later, as a sophomore, Farris’ father, Jim, was diagnosed with cancer.
“Watching my family members go through what they have with cancer really puts things into perspective,” Farris told TucsonSentinel.com in 2013. “It reminds me to be humble and to not get emotional about things, that pitching is not as hard as fighting for your life.”
Farris handled it with a maturity beyond his years. Though a day did not go by where his family wasn’t on his mind, Farris found a way to use the adversity as motivation on the field.
Given an opportunity to begin the 2012 season as the Sunday starter, Farris made the most of it. The right-hander tossed a complete-game, five-hit shutout in his first start against North Dakota State, and he never looked back.
Still, Farris had plenty to prove to himself against the competition in the Pac-12, arguably the top baseball conference in the nation.
On an early spring Sunday afternoon in cold and rainy Corvallis, Ore., Farris was given the ball in the rubber game against the 19th-ranked Oregon State Beavers at Goss Stadium, as hostile as any venue in the league. Farris answered the bell with 7.2 strong innings, leading the Wildcats to a 7-5, series-clinching victory.
“I feel that was my coming out game because it sealed a spot in the starting rotation,” Farris recalls two years later. “Coach Lopez said ‘that was big time’ afterward. A lot of the older guys – Alex Mejia, Seth Mejias-Brean, Robert Refsnyder, Joey Rickard and even Johnny Field – they all were asking me, ‘where did that come from?’ It gave me a lot of confidence the rest of the season.”
From that point forward, Arizona viewed itself as a club that could beat anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Arizona wouldn’t have won a conference title that season, let alone a national championship, without Farris. If Heyer, an All-American pitcher who led the nation in wins, landed the body blows in the opening round, Farris delivered the knockout punch on the back end of the rotation. As the third starter, Farris was given the ball to pull out a series in a rubber game or seal a Sunday sweep.
But as the Wildcats caught fire late that season, Farris was hardly needed, even after throwing a complete game in a Tucson Regional Championship victory over Louisville. Arizona went on to sweep two games from St. John’s in the Tucson Super Regional a week later, needing only Heyer and Wade – the Friday and Saturday starters – to win the two games.
Once in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series, the Wildcats continued to ride the arms of Heyer and Wade in four-straight convincing wins. With just one game left to clinch a national title, Lopez faced the dilemma of bringing Heyer back on short rest, or giving the ball to Farris who had not pitched in 22 days.
All-American veterans Mejia and Refsnyder encouraged Lopez to give Farris the ball for the final game against South Carolina, and the three-time national coach of the year did just that.
Farris did not disappoint, turning in arguably the best pitching performance of his career.
Going toe-to-toe with South Carolina’s All-American Michael Roth, Farris allowed only two hits and a run in 7.2 innings against the two-time defending national champs. That provided enough time for the Wildcats to break through with three runs in the ninth inning and they held on to capture the school’s fourth national championship with the 4-1 victory.
As sweet as the championship was, Lopez, who also won a national title at Pepperdine in 1992, made sure his players put it in the proper perspective.
“This is a great moment, but don’t let it define who you are as a person,” Lopez said.
For Farris, those wise words sank in as he set his sights on the next years of his career. Fortunately, the cancer that threatened his sister and his father have been in remission since his sophomore season, which freed up Farris to focus on his development as a pitcher.
As a junior, Farris moved to the Saturday slot behind Wade. In his new role, the veteran went 5-5 with a 73 strikeouts in 99 innings pitched, but ultimately the Wildcats missed out on a postseason berth.
Soon after, the Astros picked Farris in the draft, leaving him with the decision to stay or go. Farris felt he had unfinished business and had more to prove to scouts in his senior year. His ultimate goal was to show that he could be a Friday night guy, perhaps the most desired pitching title in college baseball.
“He definitely felt like he had more to prove at this level,” said assistant coach Shaun Cole, who oversees the pitching staff. “We talked about him continuing to grow. One of the keys was to manage his emotions better, to not let one inning or situation bother him the rest of the game. He has exceled at that this season, especially down the stretch. He has been fun to work with during his career because he is willing to learn.”
Strong performances last fall and during preseason workouts cemented his role as the ace entering the 2014 season, capping a development process few could have expected in his days at Highland.
Consider that Farris didn’t pitch on any day of the week as a freshman. He settled into Sundays as a sophomore, slid to Saturdays as a junior and sacrificed a chance at pro ball to be the Friday guy as a senior.
Farris knows as well as anyone that things don’t always go as planned. Now a senior, Farris and the Wildcats ran into some unexpected troubles that have led to the first losing season since 2006, which coincidentally was two years removed from another College World Series appearance in 2004.
At a younger age, Farris might have struggled to find the maturity necessary to deal with his own frustrations. Now, he is a grizzled veteran able to handle just about any circumstance.
Maturity was necessary to endure a span of two months – eight consecutive starts – without picking up a win to his credit as a senior. Instead of hanging his head, especially when Arizona’s postseason hopes faded in April, Farris only improved as the season got tougher.
The final five starts of his Pac-12 career have come over the last month, and perhaps no five-game stretch of his career has produced better results. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has thrown two complete games and tallied a 1.50 earned run average over 36 total innings in those games.
And how is this for coming full circle:
In his first career start three years ago, Farris tossed a complete-game shutout with six strikeouts. It’s not surprising that he out-did himself in his final Pac-12 start last Friday in Berkeley. Against California, he went the distance for the eighth time in his career, racking up seven strikeouts and allowing only four hits in a shutout victory.
“What we have gone through as a team this year and the way James handled himself confirms that he is a real Friday guy,” Cole said. “I think he put a stamp on that last week (at California). What a great way for him to finish his career in this conference.”
Throughout his four years, Farris has compiled quite the resume. He has registered 240 career strikeouts over 49 career appearances, including 46 starts, which is tied for sixth-most in school history. His 1.77 walks per nine inning figure is likely to finish second-best in program history, and that’s over 311.1 total innings.
“I’ve learned so much about baseball,” Farris says, reflecting on his Wildcat career. “I have been so fortunate to be coached by a Hall of Famer (Lopez) – he will be in the Hall of Fame someday. And winning a national championship wasn’t bad either.”
Now the senior closes in on the final game of his collegiate career before embarking on life as a professional ballplayer. Scouts have indicated to the Wildcat coaches that Farris has improved his draft stock, maybe even into the top 10 rounds.
“I’m just looking forward to getting drafted again,” Farris says of the upcoming draft, scheduled for June 5-7. “It doesn’t matter where, once you get to pro ball it’s anyone’s game. I want to stick with everything I have learned here and give myself the best chance I can.”
At the same time, Farris has continued his work towards his degree, which did play a factor in his decision to return to school. He still has a semester to go before he graduates with a Bachelor of Science in Regional Development with a minor in Environmental Studies.
When Farris toes the rubber for the final time this Friday night at 6 p.m. against Abilene Christian, he won’t be setting out simply to throw another complete game. Instead, he’ll be completing a career.
And what a career it has been.