There's a reason why BYU slider artist Nate Fernley never threw from the mound as a pitcher in high school-four of his teammates were drafted as pro hurlers.
So Nate and one of his pitching friends moved on from that Millikan High team in Long Beach, Calif., to Long Beach City College. At LBCC Fernley moved from third to second base to show what he had honed by playing wiffle ball in the Fernley's backyard brawls. Now it is Nate's turn to follow up as a pro pitching prospect as this season begins in less than two weeks. The 6-3 righthander is moving from the Cougars' relief ace last year to a senior starter.
That friend, Greg Moore, who moved on from LBCC to the University of San Francisco, will meet Fernley and the Cougars on Feb. 5-6, as part of the 10-day tour to California. In fact, USF was one of four schools to recruit Fernley, the others being Long Beach State, Florida and BYU.
Both Fernley and USF's Moore no doubt remember their prep teammates:
* Nick Bierbodt, a lefty who was the first pick ever for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1996.
* Eric Ireland, a second round draft choice of the Houston Astros who was traded to the Oakland A's.
* Mike Gallo, who went with them to LBCC and ended up as a fifth round draft choice of the Astros.
* Greg Dukeman, who was a draft choice by the Atlanta Braves and traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Pitchers in the pros have a theme similar to the rule of real estate-location, location, location. Fernley attributes his prowess for location in the strikezone to playing wiffle ball. Fernley prefers the wiffle ball with holes, not the one with the slits that make it easy for anyone to throw a curve.
As a youngster, Nate pretended he was Orel Hershiser, who had bad outings in the Fernley backyard against his dad who was a former draft and player for the Houston Astros. The pretend "Orel" had good performances against his brothers like Sam, who also signed with BYU, and sister Emily, who currently plays softball for the Cougars.
Usually Nate and Sam were on different teams in the backyard. Youngest brother Jeff, now a 6-4 junior in high school, paired with Nate against Sam and Emily. The siblings were admonished to not bring the rivalry inside the house, but the two holes in the closet door may not be the total responsibility of Ninetendo wars, rather the backyard contests.
"I would set up the lawn chair to represent the strike zone," says Nate of those backyard wiffle ball games. "A hit over the fence was a home run, off the wall was a triple, it was a double if it hit the wall on the ground and a single if it stopped before the backyard plants. We would keep our own statistics and track rotations."
With a real baseball, he learned to control his deceptive slider with a grip across the seams and a flick of the thumb and knuckle paired with a slight sidearm throw.
"I first saw how to do it from a picture in Sports Illustrated, then I fiddled with a way to hold the ball," says Fernley, who wants to go on for a master's degree and become a coach after his playing days are done.
He now has a hard and a slow slider which are different from his fastball which has been clocked in the mid to high 80s. He used to throw in the 90s and more over the top with his motion before serving a two-year LDS Church mission to Salta, Argentina.
Before that mission he'd only pitched 18 innings, but it attracted a scout who tried to convince him that he knew Dale Murphy, who hadn't served a mission until after playing. The scout was with the Atlanta Braves who drafted Fernley who left instead on a mission.
While on his mission, Nate took two gloves and a baseball, but was lucky if he got to throw more than once a month in the soccer-crazed country. He was so remote from baseball that he was in disbelief when he accidently spotted the Florida Marlins, of all teams, celebrating on TV after they had won the World Series.
When he returned from that mission, he was fully committed to baseball and his pitching improved. The Spanish major, who has taken three classes in that language since his return, also got a chance to use his surprise on the Spanish-speaking parents of his junior college teammates by joining in on conversations.
He surprised JC opponents, too, by tallying 134 strikeouts in 135.1 innings which attracted another draft from the Braves. But he elected to come to BYU where his sister preceded him and he saw what a nice atmosphere she was in-the two of them helped influence younger brother Sam to pitch his specialty of curves and cut sliders for BYU.
Unbeknown to Nate, after he committed to BYU, he would be reunited with his former pitching coach Mike Karpel. Karpel was partly responsible for Nate getting a chance to move from the infield to the mound in 1996 at LBCC.
"He didn't walk a batter before his mission," says Karpel. Fernley left for Argentina and Karpel to a rival junior college.
"I knew he had a knack to throw," says Karpel. "Nate's high school and junior college programs produce winning teams. Losing is not an option to him. The numbers he put up are phenomenal. He still competes even when he doesn't have his best stuff."
When Nate moved to BYU to join Coach Karpel, it took Fernley away from his girlfriend again. Dara Burch was from his same high school and graduated this past year from the University of San Diego. This past summer they got married.
"She's an Angels' fan, so it doesn't help that I'm a Dodgers fan," says Fernley, who admits he still likes the Braves because they have the best pitching staff. Nate was honored as one of three top youths at the annual "Mormon Night" at a San Diego Padres game, but he had to catch the opening toss from a science specialist, while a girl musician stood behind him as an umpire.
Now umpires get to observe Nate's change-up and his newly-added split finger fastball.
But it is his wicked slider which has baffled batters since junior college. In his final year at LBCC he had an 11-2 record in 135.1 innings with 134 strikeouts, 21 walks, 16 starts in 18 appearances for one save and a 2.73 earned run average.
Last season at BYU he had:
* Pitched 67.2 innings
* Six saves in 24 appearances
* A 1-4 record with a 3.46 ERA
* Struck out 55 and walked 18 batters
It's the nibbling of the corners of home plate with that slider which is Fernley's bread and butter.
"The key is throwing the ball where you want it, but its more than throwing the ball," says Fernley. "The days you are happy are when you throw that pitch and you have them. They are in your control. You have to work the corners and I learned that in my backyard."
Now his "backyard" is BYU's Larry H. Miller Field, which Nate will help open on March 15. Nate has only seen his his sister Emily play twice for BYU, but that could change as four times the Cougar softball and baseball teams play at Miller Park on the same day. On April 20 and 27 the softball team has games at 1:30, while the baseball team is under the lights at 6 p.m. And on April 21 and 28, the softball team plays at Miller Park at noon, while baseball plays at 1 p.m. on those dates.
On groundbreaking-day for the new facility last May, Nate got his first start and went the nine-inning distance to upset league champion New Mexico. Against UNM, he earned Mountain West Conference Pitcher of the Week honors after he threw 98 pitches and had a no-hitter through five innings.
He got his next start at the MWC Playoffs in Las Vegas where he gave a valiant effort in nearly knocking off tournament champion San Diego State. The Aztecs came from behind to take a 6-5 victory after Fernley went 8.2 innings.
Fernley got his first save at No. 2 Alabama when he struck out six in three innings. He also had saves at UNLV, vs. Southern Utah, vs. Utah and two vs. Air Force last season.
This season he relishes the starting role coaches have given to him.
"I like knowing who I'm going to face beforehand," says Fernley. "I like being able to work opponents."