AUTHOR: PHELPS

BETTER A LATE BLOOMER THAN NEVER FOR MCNEELY

Mitch McNeely was just an average left-handed pitcher during his playing days at New Albany's W.P. Daniel High School and Northeast Mississippi Community College.

His coaches Buddy Hall at New Albany and Ray Scott at Northeast will tell you he had the potential to be a lot better than just average.

So neither coach is surprised that McNeely, 22, is just now starting to blossom as a pitcher in the professional ranks. He pitches in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system for the Vero Beach (Fla.) Dodgers. Through Tuesday, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound lefty had a 1-0 record, one save and a 0.95 ERA. He has only given up one run in his last 22 innings.

"I wasn't a star (in high school)," McNeely said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "I was just an average pitcher, a lefty. I wasn't very big, about 6-foot, 160 pounds."

McNeely, who grew up playing summer league baseball in Tupelo, moved to New Albany his junior year in high school. He didn't even play high school baseball in Tupelo. His junior season at New Albany he played very little, but heading into his senior season he was the Bulldogs' No. 1 hurler.

"He had a good, live arm," Hall said. "He threw about 80 (mph). He worked hard and became a good pitcher."

McNeely came out smoking his senior year, posting a 4-0 record and striking out 16 in a division game against Oxford and 14 in another division game against Olive Branch. Then along came tennis.

"He wanted to play tennis because it was his senior year," Hall said. "When he started playing (tennis) he didn't have a chance to practice (baseball) and his mechanics slipped. Tennis may not have been a factor, but he didn't win another game. I think he finished 4-4."

Northeast's Scott saw McNeely's potential and recruited him.

"He was about 155 pounds when we signed him, but by the time he left here he was 6-3, 180," Scott said. "He always had a good breaking ball, but his fastball lacked some zip. By his sophomore year he was throwing 83 to 85 (mph)."

McNeely put together a 6-4 record and had a 2.00 ERA his sophomore season at Northeast. Despite his record, Scott said the major colleges overlooked the youngster because of his size. But a scout for the Houston Astros saw McNeely pitch and hooked him up with Centenary College in Shreveport, La.

And it was at Centenary two seasons ago that McNeely had his biggest day ever on the mound. He fired a two-hit shutout against the nation's top-ranked team, LSU, in Baton Rouge.

"That was the game that got me drafted," McNeely said. "The stands were packed with scouts that day. Except for the Astros scout, I'd never talked with any other scouts. For the rest of that season I talked with a lot of them (laugh)."

In last year's June draft, the Dodgers nabbed McNeely in the 30th round. Except for a minor bout with tendinitis in his left shoulder this spring, he is making good progress.

"I work as a middle reliever now, but I'd like to work into a starting role," he said. "I just want to throw as much as possible. So I like coming out of the bullpen."

His best outing as a pro came this season when he fired four innings of no-hit ball against the St. Lucie (Fla.) Mets and got the win.

"I want to be successful and move up as quickly as possible," he said. "I'd like to make to the big leagues."

Hall says he wouldn't be surprised to see McNeely in the majors.

"He's that kind of kid," Hall said. "He'll do whatever it takes."

Gene Phelps is sports editor for the Daily Journal.

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