The Dominant Awesomeness of Dominic Austing
Originally posted January 3, 2019 on KVSC.org
“Who’s the ace?” That simple three-word question is one that many baseball fans have pondered throughout the game’s existence. Teams are often defined by their ace, from professional baseball all the way down to little league. In the Pat Dolan era at St. Cloud State, the Huskies simply wouldn’t be “The Huskies” without a dominant pitcher anchoring the staff.
David Deminsky held the title of ace from 2008 to 2010, winning 20 games while posting a 3.39 ERA and a 3.03 FIP across his three seasons at the top of the staff, culminating in him being selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 44th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Scott Lieser took the reigns as the ace in 2011 until his graduation and signing with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013, going 29-7 over 35 starts with a 2.62 ERA, a 2.58 FIP and a .583 opponent OPS. Kyle Fischer inherited the role in 2014, going 6-4 with a 3.04 ERA, a 3.06 FIP and a .630 opponent OPS before being drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 30th round of the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft. Then-freshman phenom Sheldon Miks earned the title midway through his 2015 debut season, holding the role until he suffered a torn UCL two starts into 2017. Miks went 18-5 with a 1.56 ERA in two full campaigns as the ace and was named an All-American twice. Cal Giese shouldered the load as the new staff ace after Miks’ injury in 2017, going 9-2 with a 1.86 ERA and a .568 oppenent OPS over 13 starts. With Miks unable to return until May and Giese shelved with an elbow injury of his own, the Huskies needed a new ace to step up in 2018.
And thus, the legend of Dominic Austing took flight.
The homegrown righthander, born and raised in Sauk Rapids, began his rise to the top of St. Cloud State’s pitching staff all the way back in his prep days at St. Cloud Cathedral. A starting pitcher and second baseman for Bob Karn, as a senior Austing anchored the Crusaders’ pitching staff with a name familiar to Huskies fans: Brindley Theisen, a senior on the St. Cloud State Men’s Basketball team in his second year as the starting shooting guard, following two seasons as a key rotational piece off the bench. The soft-spoken Austing cracks a smile when considering which of the two was Cathedral’s ace.
“That’s up for interpretation, I guess,” Austing chuckled, “I don’t really care about the labels. We both were pretty successful.”
Cathedral won the 2014 Minnesota State High School League Class AA Championship over Fairmont, with Austing earning the win in relief at Target Field. The Crusaders also took home the 2015 Class AA Championship against Minnehaha behind a complete game from Theisen.
“There was a lot of talent on every team I played on there,” said Austing, “I mean, there’s been players going through Cathedral for as long as I can remember. Guys I was looking up to when I was in seventh, eighth grade. The Thome’s of the world, Jeff Fasching was a really good player, he’s down with the Gophers now, Brindley had quite a bit of success, Tommy Auger’s out at Saint John’s. There’s just always people surrounding you, I think, that make you a better player when you’re playing with them.”
Austing went 5-0 as a junior at Cathedral, punching out 45 across 36.0 innings with a 0.51 ERA. As a senior in 2015, he dominated by going 8-0 with a 1.84 ERA across 57.0 frames, striking out 79 and walking just 19. As a high-profile pitcher for a program with recent graduates Andrew Thome (North Dakota) and Jeff Fasching (Minnesota) heading to NCAA Division I schools, Austing took a laid-back approach to recruiting, fitting in with his personality.
“I was kind of low-key in the recruiting process,” remembered Austing, “I didn’t do all the ‘showcase, travel ball,’ that really wasn’t my scene. I had other hobbies, I liked to go to the cabin, I liked to play football and hang out with friends.”
In fact, Austing wasn’t too concerned about the prospect of college baseball.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really focused on playing college ball all that much,” Austing said, “My motto’s always been kind of like, ‘If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.’”
Well, he was good enough, and they did find him. Near the end of Austing’s junior year, St. Cloud State head coach Pat Dolan invited him on a visit. Dolan had experienced great success recruiting Cathedral players to the Huskies, with standouts such as Phil Imholte, Steve Rindelaub, and Nick Maiers trading the blue and gold for the scarlet and black. Austing quickly became enamored with the idea of staying close to home.
“For me, having my family and friends come watch is one of the big reasons I like to play,” said Austing, “When I saw that as an opportunity I kind of jumped on it, me being a homebody as I am, getting to play here for a good team, I figured that it’d be a good opportunity.”
The righthander began his collegiate career as a true freshman in 2016. The Huskies opened that year at the Houston Winter Classic, as they will here in 2019, and Austing made his college debut against Tarleton State at Minute Maid Park. He fired 2.0 innings of relief, allowing one earned while striking out one in relief of senior Ryan Diers.
The 2016 Huskies relied on a mix of youth and experience on their pitching staff, with sophomores Miks and Kevin Bolder joining soon to be four-time All-American senior Reese Gregory and redshirt freshman Giese as starters of 7+ games. Diers made 5 starts, as did sophomore Tyler Gentz. Austing joined the fray as a swingman, helping David Kroger, Miles Nablo, and Gentz bridge the gap to senior closer Logan Spitzak in relief while making spot starts as needed.
Austing made his first collegiate start and notched his first collegiate win on March 12th, 2016 against Valley City State at the Tucson Invitational, firing 5.0 scoreless with four hits and four strikeouts. He remembers being nervous before taking the hill.
“I was very nervous,” recounted Austing, “I still get nervous before every game. I think it’s a good thing.”
He then experienced his first real struggles at the college level, allowing 10 earned runs total over his next two starts against SMSU and Upper Iowa.
“You learn pretty quick that everybody’s pretty talented at this level,” explained Austing, “You can’t get by with one or two pitches, you have to learn how to actually pitch. I think I knew that, but it really sticks home when you struggle, which I did struggle, but I needed that. I still struggle. I think having guys that you know are going to have your back after a bad outing, it’s not like it’s the end of the world, that you have to come back around and learn from back, it humbles you a little bit.”
Austing rebounded from the two rough outings by twirling his best outing of the year, punching out 8 batters over 4.0 innings of relief while allowing just 3 hits and a walk versus Augustana, and continued his role as a swingman throughout the remainder of the season. He earned a win out of the bullpen in a pair of postseason blowouts over Minnesota-Crookston in the NSIC Tournament and Missouri Western State in the NCAA Central Region Tournament.
All in all, Dominic Austing posted a 3-0 record with a 5.40 ERA across 11 appearances and 5 starts as a true freshman. He struck out 37 over 36.2 innings, walking just 10 batters. He credited the strong 2016 senior class for his ability to stay productive throughout the campaign, and pointed to two players in particular that had an impact on his craft.
“I really looked up to Kyle Lieser,” Austing said, “He was always super good to me. He never treated me like I was a freshman. Alex Naasz was really good at that too. You could talk to those guys about just about anything and they’d have a smile on their face.”
As 2016 rolled into 2017, the Huskies had a massive graduating class to fill, primarily on the position player side, but leaking into the pitching staff as well. The Huskies had two weekend spots, both midweeks, their closer, and a bevy of relief roles needing to be sorted out. Austing had an inside track on one of the starting rotation spots after his strong freshman output, but he’d be the last person to say he expected a big role as a sophomore.
“I don’t know that I looked at it as a role I expect to have,” explained Austing, “That was a season where everything was wide open, so you make your own fate, and I think that’s what I tried to do. I mean, there was a lot of talent still left, so it wasn’t a given. I knew Cal and Sheldon would be there. I didn’t expect to be the so-called ace, not that it really matters, but I knew that if I set myself up right and worked hard enough I could pick up a lot of innings.”
He began 2017 as a probable member of the weekend rotation, along with Miks, Giese, and Austin Caspersen, a senior transfer from NAIA school Doane University who had redshirted at SCSU in 2016. Austing began his season on Opening Day at U.S. Bank Stadium in relief of Miks, throwing 3.0 scoreless innings of one-hit ball while striking out three Concordia-St. Paul Golden Bears. After struggling in his first start of the year against #7 Azusa Pacific at the Tucson Invitational, he made another scoreless relief outing versus Malone, striking out four over 3.2 innings of three-hit baseball. Once the Huskies moved into their NSIC schedule, Austing remained in the rotation for the rest of the season. His conference schedule began a little rocky, taking the loss at Sioux Falls after going 6.2 frames and allowing 5 runs, four earned on 10 hits despite walking none and striking out 9. He settled in comfortably after that outing, embarking on a 5-game winning streak. Over his final 9 starts, he posted a 6-1 record with a 2.61 ERA and a 2.38 FIP.
His best outing of the year came on the road at Minnesota-Crookston, earning NSIC Pitcher of the Week honors after twirling a complete game gem.
“I remember that game,” Austing said, “It got to be like the seventh inning, and I was dragging a little bit. It was pretty cold out that day, and I talked to the pitching coach and I said, ‘Maybe just a couple more pitches, or one more inning,’ and he tells me I have a no-hitter going. I guess I didn’t realize it at the time.”
He indeed had a no-hitter on his line but lost it on a Patrick Higgins two-out single in the seventh. Despite missing out on history, Austing still dominated by cruising through 9.0 innings and allowing just one unearned run on a hit, a walk, and 12 strikeouts. Austing capped off the year by sending archrival MSU-Mankato to the elimination round of the NCAA Central Region Tournament, earning the win by striking out 9 over 6.2 innings of two-run ball on 7 hits and 2 walks.
A major theme of 2017 was the loss of Sheldon Miks, who tore his UCL two starts into the season. St. Cloud State needed a pitcher to step up and take Miks’ innings. Austing did much more than just fill up the innings total, as he paired with Giese to make up one of the most formidable duos at the top of any NSIC rotation.
Austing posted a 7-3 record as a sophomore, pitching to the tune of a 3.36 ERA across 80.3 innings, 14 appearances and 12 starts. He fired four complete games and one shutout while holding opponents to a .245 batting average and a .622 OPS. Austing punched out batters at an eye-popping 28.4% clip and posted a miniscule 3.9% walk rate. Best of all, Austing produced the third-best FIP in the NSIC at 1.97, right behind elite Mankato and Augustana aces Dalton Roach and Jacob Blank.
Looking back, Austing rightfully viewed his 2017 season as a step in the right direction.
“I felt pretty good,” Austing said, “I think it was kind of a building year for me, I came into my own a little bit, got some confidence back. I learned how to pitch, learned how to use what I have to be successful. I had some bad games, naturally, but I think what I learned is that you can’t lose your confidence from one bad game, which I try to take with me year in and year out. It was a really fun year.”
Austing wrapped 2017 by making three starts for the St. Cloud Rox of the Northwoods League. He threw 17.0 innings to the tune of a 2.12 ERA, holding opponents to a .227 batting average. After hitting his innings limit, Austing was shut down in anticipation for the 2018 season.
As 2018 approached, Austing and Giese would be expected to anchor the staff, as Miks was unlikely to return to the starting rotation until 2019. However, those plans were foiled when Giese was diagnosed with an ulnar nerve injury, shutting him down for the entire season. Austing was now the Huskies unquestioned ace, with redshirt junior Kyle Boser operating as his number two after a breakout summer in the Northwoods.
Austing made his first career Opening Day start at Missouri Western State as the Huskies began their 2018 season, going 5.0 innings while allowing one earned on two hits and a pair of walks while striking out three and receiving the win. Austing didn’t think the Opening Day nod meant much to him outside of getting the win.
“No, not really,” Austing said, “I don’t care so much about the Opening Day start. Starting the first game counts just as much as a start in the middle of the season.”
The junior righthander dominated over his first handful of starts despite being forced to exit early a few times due to a blister issue. His first major bout of 2018 came against eventual Oakland A’s 13th rounder Gus Varland and Concordia-Paul. Major League scouts were in attendance to see Varland and his upper-90s fastball, but Austing, per the usual, focused only on his game and competing against one of the best pitchers in the conference.
“I like facing guys like that,” Austing said, “I think I pitch better when I face people that are successful. I kind of like it when people say, ‘He throws harder, he does this…’ I don’t really care. That’s not what it’s about. I mean, he’s a really good pitcher. What I like most about games like that is that everybody kind of steps up, it’s not just the pitching duel, it’s everybody. Everybody seems to focus in a little bit more, do their part a little bit better, which when we do that I don’t think there are many teams better than St. Cloud State.”
Austing outlasted Varland in an eventual extra-innings Huskies victory by firing 7.0 innings of one-run ball on 6 hits, no walks, and four strikeouts, taking a no decision. After throwing 4.0 scoreless against Sioux Falls and exiting early due to his blister issue, Austing readied for one of the most compelling series of 2018.
St. Cloud State traveled to Augustana for a midweek with the #3 Vikings, and a marquee matchup of aces Austing and future Minnesota Twins 24th rounder Jacob Blank would serve as the headliner for the tilt. The senior Blank hadn’t lost a start in his four-year career, and came into the start 5-0 with a 2.48 ERA. The two righthanders battled punch-for-punch. Blank exited in a 0-0 game after throwing 6.0 scoreless, allowing four hits and walking none while striking out four.
Austing delivered one of his finest starts of his career, firing 8.0 scoreless on three hits, no walks, and 6 strikeouts. He picked up the win as St. Cloud State scored two runs in the top of the ninth, upsetting the #3 team in the country. Blank took a no-decision, keeping his undefeated streak alive, but was outlasted and outpitched by the Huskies’ ace. In vintage form, Austing deflects praise while discussing the matchup.
“I don’t think anybody’s unbeatable,” Austing said, “It’s baseball, weird things happen. He’s a really good pitcher, I enjoyed watching him pitch. I think I see a little bit of myself in him. He attacks with his fastball, and then he’s got really good offspeed, I think his go-to is kind of his curveball/slider thing. It’s a lot of fun, because people like to look at him as the gold standard in the NSIC, which…that’s fine, people can look to whoever they want, I don’t really care. I like being the underdog. I don’t care if people know my name, it makes it a little more fun, I suppose.”
Following the Augustana start, Austing had his only true “poor outing” of the year on a chilly afternoon at UMD, allowing a season-high 10 hits and four earned runs over 7.0 innings. His confidence never subsiding, Austing rebounded by going on one of the greatest 5-start stretches in St. Cloud State history.
In his final five outings against Minnesota-Crookston, MSU-Mankato, Bemidji State, Winona State, and Central Oklahoma, Austing put together a run for the ages. The ace chartered a 5-0 record, throwing to the tune of a 0.83 ERA and a 1.63 FIP across 32.2 innings, with a .134/.171/.179 opponent slash line for an .350 OPS against with a 32.5% strikeout rate and a 2.6% walk rate, giving up just 3 extra base hits over that span with a 38-3 K-BB ratio.
Then-Huskies pitching coach Brett DeGagne spoke to Austing’s confidence as a major factor in his success.
“He was throwing all 3 pitches for strikes and just knew he was in control,” said DeGagne, “I haven’t seen many more confident individuals than he was over that stretch. He didn’t want to come out of games; he didn’t even want me making a mound visit. He knew he was going to succeed and nothing was going to stop him. His curveball really started to become an out pitch and to match that with his fastball and changeup, he was unhittable.”
Austing pointed to his routine as a major factor for his dominance.
“I think I was just able to get into my routine,” said Austing, “I figured out what made me feel good, what I wanted to do to be prepared for my next game. Me, Brett and Bo were on a pretty good page on how I wanted to attack hitters. If I’m able to get ahead and have control, I think I can usually keep that walk rate down, which I try to do, and as long as I can do that, the guys are going to make plays behind me. Success just comes naturally then.”
After going 5.0 scoreless and picking up the win in his NSIC Tournament start against Winona State, Austing capped off his 2018 season with arguably his best outing of the year. The junior was named HERO Sports Hero of the Week after his NCAA Central Region Tournament-opening win over Central Oklahoma, striking out 12 and allowing just three hits and one walk over 8.2 frames of two-run ball.
“That was a fun game,” Austing said, “I don’t always have all my pitches working, but in that game I felt that I had control of everything. It was nice and warm down there and I was pretty amped up, so I think my fastball had a little bit of pop to it.”
At the conclusion of 2018, Austing earned Second Team All-Region honors from ABCA/Rawlings and was named Second Team All-Conference. His overall numbers stood at a 7-1 record over 13 starts with a 1.94 ERA, a 2.10 FIP, and a 0.877 WHIP across 78.2 innings. The righthander struck out 76 and walked just 9 for rates of 24.3% and 2.9% respectively, holding opponents to a .211/.260/.267 slash line for a .526 OPS.
Austing did all this while operating as a two-way player for the first time since his Cathedral days. With a limited position player pool due to injuries, the Huskies had no backup infielders. With starting second baseman Aaron Hammann also serving as a key arm in the Huskies’ rotation, Dolan called upon Austing as his new second baseman when Hammann pitched. In 11 games and 4 starts as a position player, Austing hit .313 with a bloop ground-rule double.
“Oofda,” said Austing, grinning and shaking his head, “Dolan got me pretty early in the year, I don’t know if it was really approached with the idea, more so told. He told me that I would probably have to play second if Aaron pitched. Coming in he recruited me as a pitcher only, and I was A-OK with that, I like the pitcher only lifestyle. I don’t know, second base, it was okay. I’m not disappointed that we have a plethora of backup players this year for second base. 85 looks pretty fast when you’re not used to it, that’s what I learned from those few at-bats I had. I don’t know, I guess it was fun. I can say I did it, but I’m glad that’s in the past.”
Overall, Austing was pleased with his 2018 season, and thinks that he can be even better, as scary as that sounds for the competition.
“I think I have a lot to improve on,” said Austing, “I always will. It’s just the nature of the game. I hope to have a lot of success again this year. Last year was a lot of fun, it was a lot of building blocks. I think I established myself a little bit, gave people maybe something to look at, and I made a lot of memories with my teammates that I think I’ll never forget.”
Austing’s two best seasons so far have been 2017 and 2018, both years under the tutelage of DeGagne as his pitching coach. DeGagne pointed to a pair of improvements that Austing had made from the beginning of his sophomore year to the end of his junior campaign.
“Two things,” explained DeGagne, “His curveball and he made a big jump just in his realization of who he is. We worked on improving the spin of his breaking ball and relying on late hard break to pair with his sinker. Created a lot more swing and miss and didn’t rely on called strikes. And he mastered his routine and found what kept him healthy and performing at a high level. He does some unorthodox things to prepare, but we embraced that through our communication because he was easy to trust. You knew he was going to work his tail off, so it allowed him to personalize his plan to optimize his performance.”
DeGagne also spoke to Austing’s work ethic as a major reason for his success.
“To be successful, your best players have to be your hardest workers,” DeGagne said, “Dom embodies that. He has figured out what makes him perform at a very high level, and he won’t settle for less. He always got his work in and then some, no matter the adversity, such as no weight room at the hotel, long travel, shortened practices, etcetera. He demands excellence from himself and other around him by people wanting to mimic his success. He shows the blueprint of what it takes every day.”
First-year Huskies pitching coach Kassidy Gaines has been equally impressed with his new ace’s hard-working nature.
“Dom is a great kid who always has a smile on his face and is very business-like when it is necessary,” said Gaines, “He is a player who loves to be challenged and has been great to coach. No question the hardest worker I have had the pleasure of working with, and is a psycho. In the baseball world, being called a psycho is a huge compliment and for him and his work ethic, there is not a better fitting word to describe his persona when it comes to the playing field and his work ethic.”
Gaines, rightly so, has major expectations for Austing.
“Expectations are big for Dom Austing and they are expectations he has set for himself,” Gaines said, “One thing is for certain when Dom is on the mound: you are getting 100 percent. As a pitching coach, that is all you can ask for.”
With his senior season just under a month away, St. Cloud State’s ace will be rejoined by All-Americans Miks and Giese, forming a weekend rotation better than most, if not all, in the Country. Austing’s more than excited for what 2019 has to bring.
“I’m really excited, just like everybody else is,” said Austing, “I think it’s going to be really cool, seeing how everything comes together. I mean, you can write whatever you want on paper at the beginning of the year, that’s never how it ends. There’s going to be roles that guys have to fill, things are going to change, somebody’s probably going to get hurt. I always just enjoy seeing how people grow, how the team grows.”
He also has a few ideas for what the team can do to meet their lofty expectations.
“I think we just have to focus on not getting too high, not getting too low,” Austing said, “We’re going to lose games, that’s just how it works. We’re going to win, hopefully, quite a few more games than we lose. I think if we’re able to stay healthy and just keep playing our game, what we’re doing best, not trying to play to the stat line, play to our opponent, we should be able to make a pretty good dent in the competition this year.”