Mustangs' Shunick takes thinking-man's approach to job
By GREG RACHAC
Of The Billings Gazette
Clayton Shunick knows he is never going to blow hitters away.
His fastball may reach the low-90-mph range at times, but Shunick understands that he must pitch smart to be successful.
So the Billings Mustangs right-hander approaches his craft with a simple mind-set.
"I really just try to change speeds and hit my spots and work on location," said Shunick, 21. "I try to work backwards a little bit and keep hitters guessing and off-balance as much as possible."
Shunick, a fifth-round draft choice by the Cincinnati Reds out of North Carolina State this year, was recently named the Pioneer League's pitcher of the week thanks to a stretch in which he dominated opponents.
In two starts at Dehler Park during the week ending July 6, Shunick went 1-0 while allowing two runs in 11 innings. The 6-foot-1 Shunick also struck out 12 while giving up just six hits and no walks.
Those outings improved dramatically on his first two professional starts, which came during the Mustangs' season-opening 14-game trip.
In those two starts, Shunick gave up 12 hits and six earned runs in eight innings.
Clearly, Shunick needed a little time to adjust to the faster pace of the pro game.
"It's good to be up here. The competition is good," Shunick said. "These are professional athletes. You've got to keep working and striving for success."
While his fastball isn't dominating - though he ranks his splitter as his "out pitch" - Shunick has great command. He ranks his change-up as his best overall pitch.
First-year Mustangs pitching coach Tom Browning said Shunick has the stuff to reach the majors.
Browning won 123 games in 11 big-league seasons with the Reds. Browning said Shunick already has the mental makeup to get there, which is always the first step.
"I like his presence on the mound," Browning said. "I like the way he handles himself. He's a professional already. Being from a big Division I school helped him. I don't think it's as overwhelming as it is for some other guys."
Shunick began his college career at Georgia State University, a Colonial Athletic Association school in suburban Atlanta. But after a short stint there, Shunick decided to take his talent to a higher level.
In two seasons at N.C. State, Shunick won 13 games and helped lead the Wolfpack to a 2008 NCAA Super Regional before they bowed out to eventual national runner-up Georgia.
Shunick was named a second-team All-American. The Reds took notice.
"That was probably the longest day of my life," Shunick said of draft day. "It was very nerve-wracking. But then I started to get a few calls later. Finally the Reds took me in the fifth (round). I was very excited."
Now that he has been successful in the early going, Shunick senses that some high expectations could be put on him, and he's doing his best not to notice.
"I try not to put too much emphasis on that," Shunick said. "Once you're in the organization you've just got to perform. That's all they're looking for."
Because Shunick threw more than 100 innings this past season at N.C. State, Browning said the Mustangs are going to limit his work this summer to around 60 innings. The pitching coach doesn't see the need for a ton of outings to draw out Shunick's potential.
"He's not going to blow the ball by anybody, and I think he understands that," Browning said. "But he's got four quality pitches that he throws. And he has an idea of what it takes out there.
"I promised him that if he has three quality pitches that he can throw for strikes consistently, he will pitch in the big leagues.