SOUTH BEND — Trevor Clifton grew up in the shadow of the University of Tennessee. But living in the Walland-Maryville area, about 30 miles south of Knoxville, Tenn., did not make him a Vols fan.
“Anything but that orange,” Clifton said. “I’ve seen too much of it. That’s the problem.”
The 6-foot-4 right-hander ended up wearing blue all right, but not at UK.
When he was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 12th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Clifton decided to don Cubbie blue.
“I wanted to go to college, but I wanted to play pro ball even more and chase my dream,” Clifton said. “I went ahead and did this.”
Clifton, who turned 20 on May 11, is in the starting rotation for the Class A South Bend Cubs.
While Clifton was taken in the 12th round, some experts have considered him more of a fifth-round talent because of his velocity — he has hit 97 mph on the radar gun — and an athletic frame that offers some flexibility.
Two months into his first year of full season minor league baseball, though he did play with short-season Boise in 2014, Clifton has learned that it’s not all about high octane.
“I’m finding out this year that it’s more important where you throw the ball than how hard you throw, Clifton said. “You can’t blow it by these guys. They’ll catch up to 94-95. You’ve got to really focus on hitting your spots.”
One way Clifton and other South Bend pitchers learn to locate their pitches is by throwing to a bullpen plate with colors that emphasize certain zones and with strings across the strike zone that get them to keep the ball down.
Clifton had 110 strikeouts in his first 109 pro innings, but he’s not that concerned about racking up K’s in the scorebook.
South Bend’s starters like to compete with one another. One way is earned run average, another is by eating up innings and saving the bullpen. In Clifton’s first eight starts, he went at least five innings on six occasions.
“I’d rather get a ground ball than a strikeout,” Cliffton said. “It saves my pitches and gets my defense on their feet.”