Standout pitcher turned in impressive campaign despite battling injury
There was a time not that long ago when Moose Jaw college baseball prospect Reece Helland was looked at as a hard-hitting third baseman with solid defensive capabilities, the kind of guy who fit in perfectly on the hot corner.
But an opportunity to throw a bullpen session for his college team last season has changed all that, and has the 20-year-old second-year Moose Jaw Miller Express veteran looking for big things going forward.
Helland put together an impressive campaign this past season at Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, California, serving as the team's closing pitcher as the Lobos put together a 15-7 record in the California Community College Athletic Association.
And he did so in style – even while battling an elbow injury, Helland made five appearances, not allowing a run in 10.2 innings of work, surrendering only four hits and striking out 15 while walking only two. That included an appearance on Feb. 15 where Helland recorded all seven outs of a 2 1/3 innings appearance by strikeout.
So not too shabby, to say the least.
“It was a really good season, we had a pretty good team and a really good pitching staff, obviously, that really helped us out,” Helland said from Monterrey late last week. “But I think for me this year, the thing that really got me going was playing summer ball in Moose Jaw. That really built my confidence up, especially after last year here and red-shirting.”
Helland was actually going to return to the team for the 2020 campaign as a third baseman, but head coach Daniel Phillips saw his numbers from this past season with the Miller Express – 12 relief appearances with 19 strikeouts and a 2.95 earned run average – and decided the freshman righthander with the wicked movement on his ball would be the Lobos' closer.
How it all came to that point was a matter of good fortune and timing beginning with the natural movement on his fastball.
“In high school I pitched a little bit, and then when I was down here redshirting, my coach asked me if I wanted to throw a bullpen because I have a pretty strong arm, and I have a natural cut on my fastball, so he wanted to see what it would look like on the mound,” Helland explained. “He liked it and told me to go home last summer and pitch as much as I could. Then when I came back they put me right into a pretty big role on the team.”
The majority of the Western Canadian Baseball League features players in their junior and senior years of university and college. So when Helland went back to junior college after putting together that kind of a showing, things were a lot different.
“So then when I was facing freshmen and sophomore and young guys down here, it went really well,” he said. “I don't throw hard enough to completely dominate, but the movement on my ball is a big help for me, so I feel like that was the one thing that really made me think 'yeah, I can do it down here'.
Helland was looking forward to seeing how the rest of the season would turn out when COVID-19 shut everything down in mid-March. He's currently doing the online-learning thing and will be back home in early May. Fortunately for Helland and his teammates, the CCCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to players who lost this season, meaning Helland will be returning as a freshman.
“I have another four years of baseball that I can't wait for,” he said happily.
There's a good chance it won't all be down in Monterey, though – coach Phillips has told Helland that after next season, it'll likely be time to move on to a higher level of play.
“My coach said he expects me to stay down here for one more year and then there's no point in a guy like me staying down here for four years, so after this year we're going to talk about it and go from there,” Helland said.
And then there's this coming season with the Miller Express. Even with so much up in the air with COVID-19, Helland is looking forward to returning to the friendly confines of Ross Wells Park. Some of that depends on how he recovers from what appears to be a forearm strain but he expects that won't be a factor if and when the season begins.
“I'm really hoping that this year will get going, I don't know what I'd do without baseball this summer,” Helland said. “It's always a lot of fun playing at home and I'm really looking forward to it.”