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Matter's Best of Mizzou: No. 18, Aaron Crow

Matter's Best of Mizzou: No. 18, Aaron Crow

From the Catch up with Matter's Best of Mizzou series
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This is the latest in a series of stories highlighting the top 30 Mizzou athletes Dave Matter has covered in his time writing about the Tigers since the late 1990s. The series will run every day Monday through Friday.

Here’s the quintessential Aaron Crow story.

It’s 12 years ago, nearly to the day. A Friday night at Mizzou’s Taylor Stadium, April 4, 2008. Oklahoma State is in town to face Crow, the junior ace of the Tigers’ staff. The righthander came into the series having not allowed a run in more than 33 innings.

“The first pitch of the game is a line drive off his pitching arm,” former Missouri baseball coach Tim Jamieson recalled Friday. “It ricocheted out of play, so it’s a ground-rule double. We make the cursory the trip to the mound just to see how he is. His heart’s probably going about 200 beats a minute. The ball hit  just below his shoulder.

“To tell you what his makeup was like, he ended up throwing a complete-game shutout.”

That brilliant outing in a 3-0 win extended Crow’s scoreless streak to 42 2/3 innings. The string of zeroes would come to its final resting place a week later when Texas tagged him for nine runs in a game Crow still managed to earn the win in a 31-12 Mizzou victory. At the time some shoddy bookkeeping by the NCAA made it difficult to pinpoint where Crow’s streak ranked in college baseball history, but a dozen years later, it’s still among the best, fourth-longest of all-time.

It would take more than a liner off his shoulder to knock Crow off his game in 2008. Just three years after Max Scherzer’s breathtaking sophomore season on the Mizzou mound, Crow nearly out-pitched his former teammate that spring. By season’s end, Crow finished 13-0 with an ERA of 2.35. He won all but one of his 13 regular-season starts. He struck out 127 batters with just 38 walks. He averaged nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He pitched four shutouts.

“That was the best year any pitcher had for me,” Jamieson said. “Just a dominant, dominant year.”

Reminder: Jamieson also coached Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner who in 2005 was an All-American at Mizzou and named the Big 12 pitcher of the year. Crow matched both honors in 2008. They were different pitchers with different strengths and different deliveries, but they had one thing in common.

“Between the lines, they were really mean SOBs,” said Jamieson, now in his first year as the pitching coach at Southern Illinois in Carbondale. “You see Max and he still is. But Aaron found ways to hate his opponent during the game. It made him that much better.”

Unlike Scherzer, Crow came from across state lines, but Mizzou didn’t have to compete with its rival for Crow, a native of Topeka, Kan.

“Kansas didn’t recruit him,” Jamieson said. “It was always a good day when we played Kansas with Aaron on the mound.”

It usually didn’t matter who was at the plate when MU’s No. 43 was on the mound. He began his career in the bullpen then moved to a starter’s role as a freshman, but after some hard-luck losses earned his first collegiate win in a six-hit complete-game victory over Pepperdine in the 2006 NCAA Regionals. The next year, with Scherzer in the pros, Crow took over as Jamieson’s ace, finishing with nine wins, a 3.59 ERA and 90 strikeouts. He lasted at least seven innings in 11 of 18 starts. His 117 2/3 innings ranked fourth all-time for a Mizzou pitcher.

Back to his recruiting. During his senior year at Washburn High, after signing with Mizzou, Crow came to Columbia during the Tigers’ winter camp. There was a problem when he took the mound and pitched. His velocity was barely touching 80 mph. Suddenly and inexplicably, he was not the pitcher Mizzou had recruited.

“Was he hurt? We were like, what’s going on here?” Jamieson said. “Initially we wondered if we made a mistake.”

It was a mystery. Crow went home to Kansas and finished up high school. By the summer, he was back hitting 90 on the gun. It turns out someone had tweaked Crow’s mechanics. It might have been a blessing in disguise for Mizzou. Had he stuck with his original delivery and not suffered the drop in velocity, he could have been drafted out of high school — and never pitched an inning for the Tigers.

“We might not have been able to hold on to him,” Jamieson said.

By his junior year, Crow was arguably the most complete college pitcher in the country. He won the Roger Clemens Award as the nation's best college pitcher and was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, the national player of the year, which went to Florida State catcher Buster Posey.

“He was always a strike thrower,” Jamieson said. “He always had command. His velocity grew each year. By the time he left, Crow had three big league pitches. His change-up breaking ball and fastball were way above average. I’ve never seen anyone throw like Max, but he was still developing those even into the big leagues. Crow was a finished dude.”

After Mizzou …

The Washington Nationals selected Crow ninth overall in the 2008 MLB draft. He was the second pitcher taken. But he never came to an agreement on a contract. (Only one other first-round draft pick didn’t sign that year: Yankees pick Gerrit Cole at No. 28.) Rather than return to school for his senior year, Crow signed with an independent minor league team, the Fort Worth Cats.

“Crow was willing to sign for $4 million right before the Aug. 15 deadline, but by that point his agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, and then-Nationals general manager Jim Bowden were unable to compromise,” Baseball America’s Jim Callis wrote in 2009. “In retrospect, neither side handled the negotiations well. The Hendricks brothers opened negotiations by asking for upwards of $7 million, while the club stuck firm to MLB's slot recommendation of $2.15 million. Neither side began to budge until a couple of days before the draft.

“On the day of the deadline, Matusz unwittingly undermined Crow when he signed a subpar deal with the Orioles as the No. 4 pick. Matusz received a big league contract with a $3.2 million bonus but only $272,500 in additional guaranteed salaries, and Washington took the position that because Matusz was a higher-rated prospect, Crow shouldn't exceed his $3.5 million guarantee. The Nationals held firm at that price and the Hendricks wouldn't come below $4 million, and the two sides wouldn't bridge the gap.”

The next year, the Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick and Crow lasted until the Royals chose him at No. 12. (Thirteen picks later, the Angels took a high school outfielder from New Jersey. Some guy named Trout.)

Crow pitched exclusively as a starter over two seasons in the Royals’ farm system then made the major league club in 2011 as a reliever. He was an All-Star his rookie year, making 57 appearances with a 2.76 ERA.

Post-Dispatch Hall of Fame baseball writer Rick Hummel wrote about the former Tiger when the Cardinals played a May series in Kansas City. From the archives:

KANSAS CITY - University of Missouri product Aaron Crow has been in the big leagues for six weeks, but he got a big-league baptism of fire Friday night when, in the eighth inning, the Kansas City rookie was called in to protect a 3-0 lead with Cardinals sluggers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday coming up and a man at first with two outs.

"Pujols has been the best hitter in baseball the last 10 years and Holliday's having a great year. So it was exciting to have that opportunity," said Crow. "They're probably the best two hitters I've faced all year."

Crow quickly got ahead of Pujols in the count at 0-2 but appeared to pitch tentatively after that and walked him. This prompted a visit from pitching coach Bob McClure, who reminded the 24-year-old to relax and ask the righthander what he wanted to throw to retire Holliday.

The answer was a fastball and on a 1-2 count, Crow fanned Holliday to help preserve a 3-0 Royals victory.

But before you surmise that the former MU Tiger was facing a team that he once might have adored, consider that Crow grew up in Topeka, Kan., as a huge Royals fan. In fact, he admitted that while at Mizzou, he would get annoyed with the number of Cardinals fans, relative to Royals fans, he encountered there. "They're great fans, passionate fans," said Crow. "But when you're around so many of them ..."

Crow did appreciate being on hand with his college teammates in St. Louis in October 2006 as the Cardinals wrapped up the World Series against Detroit. "That was a great experience to see how the whole city reacted. They were ecstatic," he said.

But Crow was so much a Royals fan that, as a first-round pick by Washington in 2008, he chose not to sign with the Nationals. He pitched independent ball in Fort Worth, Texas, and hoped the Royals would draft him the next year. And they did, making him the 12th overall selection in the draft.

"It couldn't have worked out better for me," said Crow on Saturday. "I couldn't be happier."

Over four seasons in K.C., Crow averaged 51 appearances out of the bullpen with an ERA of 3.43. The Royals made a run to the World Series in 2014, losing to the Giants in seven games, but after allowing 10 home runs during the regular season, Crow didn’t throw a pitch in the playoffs.

"I was a big part of the bullpen for most of the year,” Crow told after the season. “During the playoffs, you get days off so those guys could pitch every day. But during the regular season, those guys need days off and you need other guys to come in and get the job done. And I was the guy that was called on more often than not. And some of the guys that made the postseason roster weren't in the big leagues hardly at all this season, they really didn't help us get to the point where we were, so it kind of bothered me a little bit.

“But I pitched poorly at the end of the year, so there's nobody to blame but myself. Going into next year, I definitely want to get better and be a part of that roster next year."

There was no next year. Two weeks after those quotes were published, the Royals shipped Crow to the Marlins for two minor-league pitchers. A spring training push for a bullpen job in Miami ended when Crow underwent for season-ending Tommy John surgery. The Cubs signed him the next year but Crow never made the major league roster. Still just 33, Crow hasn’t pitched professionally since making 19 appearances in the Mexican League in 2018.

“When the Royals moved him to the bullpen, they were fast-tracking his career, and I think that shortened his career,” Jamieson said. “He felt that way, too. You get a chance to pitch in the big leagues and pitch for a winning team, but I think if they took more time with him to develop him as a starter I think he’d still be pitching.”

Hindsight is 20-20, but how does Crow’s career unfold differently if he signed with Washington out of Mizzou instead of landing in Kansas City a year later?

“Maybe the Nationals would have been a better organization for him,” Jamieson said. “You just think about the what-ifs. If he would have been a National instead of a Royal, would he have been a starter? I was disappointed he didn’t sign (in 2008), because I thought it was in his best interest. But if you asked him he’ll probably tell you it worked out for him.”

Coming Monday: He hurdled his way to All-American honors and more.

No. 19: Danario Alexander

No. 20: Drew Lock

No. 21: Markus Golden

No. 22: Sarah Shire

No. 23: Shane Ray

No. 24: Kareem Rush

No. 25: Henry Josey

No. 26: Justin Gage

No. 27: Derrick Peterson

No. 28: Martin Rucker

No. 29: Molly Kreklow

No. 30: Arthur Johnson

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