SLU pitcher James Norwood ready to take heater to the next level

James Norwood is expected to be picked among the first few rounds of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

ST. LOUIS — James Norwood was shocked.

The Saint Louis University right-handed pitcher had just finished a fall exhibition outing against the Ontario Blue Jays, an amateur team from Canada that travels to the United States to play against college teams.

That’s when he found out he hit 97 mph on the radar gun.

"I was really surprised," Norwood told "I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t that warm of a day out, either. I was just expecting to go in there and try to do as well as I can. All of a sudden they tell me after that I was throwing a lot harder than I have been in a while. It was really pretty cool. I don’t know. I was just shocked."

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior had been known as a hard thrower and had seen his velocity creep up after touching 94 during a sophomore season that was cut short by an injury and shut him down for months.

But 97?

That’s a game-changer.

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That’s the kind of heat that perks up the ears of scouting directors and general managers from big-league teams from coast to coast, people who haven’t traditionally looked at Billikens as potential high-round draft picks.

But that’s what Norwood is now, months later, after a strong junior season. He is expected to be picked somewhere in the first few rounds of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft late next week.

"It depends who you talk to, where you talk, and who is sorting through it all," SLU coach Darin Hendrickson said Thursday. "I don’t think anyone knows particularly. I’d say as high as second round, from second, third, to even fourth round. That would be my guess. … None of us know until the draft is happening and it goes down."

Norwood, 20, is rated by Baseball America as the 76th-best prospect going into next week’s draft. He is rated by as the 107th-best prospect — projected to be a second- or third-round selection — while Perfect Game USA ranks him at 121.

And it all started last fall with his outing against the Ontario Blue Jays and then replicating that performance in front of pro scouts at the Billikens’ annual scout day.

"There were 17 pro guys there and he was up to 97," Hendrickson said. "It was all over Twitter. His name started popping up on Perfect Game and with Kendall Rogers (from Perfect Game) and the guys who cover our sport on a national level. So I think when that started happening, we all figured that we’ve got something going here."

Norwood proved months later, before the start of his junior campaign, that his fastball was worth the scouts coming out to watch him.

"It’s a special fastball," Hendrickson said. "His first pitch February 7 was 95. But 95 indoors on February 7 is insane. It really is. I don’t care where you’re at, major leagues, college, it’s pretty impressive."

The Bronx, N.Y., native backed that up this spring.

He started out the season as SLU’s Saturday starter — the Billikens’ No. 2 pitcher behind returning ace Clay Smith — but then was called on to take over the Friday spot when Smith went down with an injury after three starts.

Norwood, who had started just five games in his first two seasons with the Billikens, didn’t flinch when he was handed the ball with added pressure.

He went 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA in 94 innings over 15 starts, including one shutout among three complete games, as SLU won its third consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season championship. He struck out 64 batters, walked 28 and limited opposing hitters to a .242 average.

"I feel like I did well," Norwood said. "Some of my starts could have been better, but I can’t change it now."

Hendrickson explains that the righty still has work to do — his development of secondary pitches will be key to add to the heater — and is far from a finished product. But in this case, going into the draft, that’s a positive.

"That’s why, if I was a scout, I’d be excited from that end to know that I’m going to get more from this guy," the SLU coach said. "He only has 100 college innings in his arm. Some guys have that this year and they are going to bust that this week in the regionals and super-regionals. That’s something to look at, too.

"There are a lot of plusses about James. He’s going to have to figure some things out with his secondary stuff and get after it pretty hard when he gets to his pro club, and I know he will. He’s a worker. He’s a good kid and represented SLU well, and he’s going to do real well down the road."

Norwood admitted that the extra attention from scouts made him nervous at first, but he learned how to embrace it as it became the new normal.

Now he’s counting down the days until he hears his name called and can take the next step in his baseball career, a journey that has already taken him from little-known prospect in the Bronx to improbable ace of a Division I conference championship team in the Midwest.

"I’m getting really excited for the draft," he said Thursday. "I just can’t wait until I get the chance to play professionally."