A baseball coach watches a player practice pitching
Missouri State pitching coach Nick Petree looks on as Brandt Thompson gets in his pre-game warmup session prior to the series opener against Indiana State Thursday, May 18, 2023. (Photo: Lyndal Scranton)

As Nick Petree watched intently in the Missouri State bullpen, observing starting pitcher Brandt Thompson before Thursday night’s game against Indiana State, the Bears’ pitching coach was exactly where he wanted to be. 

While compiling one of the most-decorated pitching careers in school history a decade ago, Petree was confident that he would someday return to Hammons Field in exactly this role. 

“This was one of my goals,” Petree said. “I wanted to continue to play baseball for as long as I possibly could and let the game and my body dictate when that was done. 

“After that, I always had my eyes on this job and coming back.”

Petree, 32, was elevated to his dream job last summer when his mentor, long-time Bears pitching coach Paul Evans, stepped down after a Hall of Fame career. Was there pressure stepping into giant coaching shoes?

You bet. Especially when it’s at your alma mater. 

But the results have been solid — though the series opener against the ninth-ranked Sycamores was a rough one. League champion Indiana State knocked Thompson out in the third inning, capitalizing on three early Bears errors and five unearned runs en route to an 11-4 victory.

Missouri State (31-19 overall, 18-7 Missouri Valley Conference) is locked in as the No. 2 seed for next week’s league tourney. They will try to salvage the remainder of the series against the Sycamores with Hayden Minton scheduled to pitch on Friday night and Jake Eddington on Saturday.

Great numbers in Petree’s first year

Petree became the pitching coach after a historically poor 2022 season on the mound for the Bears, with a team earned run average of 6.13. There was a remake of the staff in the offseason. All but four mound starts this season have been made by newcomers.

“You look at it on paper, we only had two returning pitchers. It’s a lot of new guys,” Bears veteran head coach Keith Guttin said. “It takes time to learn about them and for them to learn about you.”

The Missouri State pitching staff leads the MVC in total strikeouts (463) and strikeouts per nine innings (9.38), the best rate in school history. Thompson leads in the MVC in ERA at 3.14, and the Bears’ 4.62 staff ERA ranks 41st nationally.

“It’s been good. The numbers tell you it’s been a good year,” Guttin said. “He’s bonded well with the pitching staff, collectively and individually. They’ve developed a trust with him in a short time. Of course, the guys who had been here already knew him, but he’s done a nice job.”

Applying what he learned from longtime coach Paul Evans

Petree, 27-7 with a 1.76 earned run average in three All-America seasons for the Bears from 2011-13, is quick to praise Evans while trying to create his own coaching identity. He learned at Evans’ side as a player and for the last four seasons worked as MSU’s director of player development. 

A baseball coach walks off the field
Even during his playing career, Nick Petree had a long-term goal of returning to Missouri State someday as the pitching coach. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

The move into coaching began after Petree’s professional playing career ended in 2015. A ninth-round draft choice of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013, he won 17 games at three levels in two minor-league seasons including a stint with the Double-A Springfield Cardinals. 

“It was definitely difficult in a sense, but Coach Evans taught me a ton, not only as a player but when I got to coach underneath him,” Petree said of the move to pitching coach. “He helped me be prepared for this moment and this situation. The other side of that, too, is it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. 

“Just being goal-oriented and process-focused, I was kind of able to hit the ground running.”

Pitching staff clicking in its roles

Petree’s staff, one with only Forrest Barnes and Trey Ziegenbein returning after the rough 2022 season, has evolved as the season progressed. The three weekend starters — Thompson, Minton and Eddington — have been backed by Ziegenbein and Barnes out of the bullpen. Freshman Garrett Ferguson developed into the team’s closer, with the bullpen getting a big lift when Reed Metz regained health and made his debut in mid-April.

“We’ve been really fortunate. Where we started, I think it was an uphill battle,” Petree said. “They’ve responded every day and focused on the process of getting better every day and it’s taken us to where we are now. Just a very good job by them.

“It’s definitely some different roles for some guys, but we’ve been fortunate in that we haven’t had to change our starting rotation. Ferguson has stepped up for that closing role and that’s helped us out tremendously. It’s allowed us to use ‘Ziggy’ where I feel he’s best, in the middle of games. That was a big piece for us to find.”

Petree described his weekend starting trio as dependable and able to complement each other with various strengths.

“Brandt is a strike-thrower and he has good stuff. He doesn’t necessarily have the power fastball that Minton and Eddington do, but he commands it well and uses it when necessary,” Petree said. “Minton has thrown a ton of strikes with really good stuff. That was his one thing he needed to get better at and he has. 

“Eddington has power stuff on Sundays, which is nice to have. This is his first year starting this many games. It’s been fun to see him progress throughout the year.”

Emphasis on mental approach paying off

Minton said Petree’s emphasis on throwing strikes has been consistent throughout, along with the mental approach to pitching. 

“In the early fall, I don’t think we were too mentally tough, personally. But as the fall went on we got better,” Minton said.

The mental approach to pitching is something Petree knows all about. During his career, he was often referred to as a “Pitching Professor” with his ability to marry an analytical approach to his physical ability, and made in-game adjustments like few on the college level are able. 

“I got to play chess at a very young age,” Petree said. “I view baseball as very similar. If you can play chess and think moves ahead, you give yourself a better chance to win. The other thing that’s fun about baseball, it’s a game of probability. If you understand the metrics and the data, then you can put yourself in better probabilities at a consistent rate.”

A baseball team huddles up on the pitching mound
Missouri State’s pitching staff leads the Missouri Valley Conference in strikeouts and in strikeouts per nine innings (9.38), the best rate in school history. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Petree threw a season for the ages in 2012

Petree’s sophomore season in 2012 was one for the ages when a Petree start became must-see baseball. He threw a school-record 38 ⅓ scoreless innings from April 6-May 17, as well as 73 straight innings without surrendering an earned run from March 2 through May 17.

He finished with a 10-4 record and Division I-best 1.01 ERA in leading a Bears team with future major leaguers Pierce Johnson and Luke Voit to the NCAA Tournament’s Miami Regional. Petree was named by Collegiate Baseball magazine as the Louisville Slugger National Player of the Year.

“It’s pretty impressive and unbelievable,” Minton said of Petree’s season. “It would be nice to replicate it.”

Guttin said it’s more difficult to put Petree’s 2012 season into perspective with each passing year.

“When you’re in it you’re enjoying it and when you look back on it you’re kind of astonished,” Guttin said. 

Hoping to make postseason memories with his players

For his part, Petree said he doesn’t think about his statistics as much as the team’s accomplishments. He’s preached that same mindset to his pitchers this season, with a goal of impacting the team as a whole.

“I remember the guys, number one — Pierce, Grant (Gordon), Clay (Murphy) and that staff, plus (Luke) Voit,” Petree said. “The other piece of that was the run we had as a pitching staff and understanding what it took, not just being a good pitcher but a good pitching staff from a leadership standpoint and a process standpoint. 

“The year, from start to finish, it was a great group of guys with three amazing coaches that helped us to get to where we wanted to be, in a regional. It was an amazing year.”

Petree is hopeful his pitchers can make similar postseason memories as he got to enjoy 11 years ago. That would put a happy exclamation point on the first year in his dream job. 

“It’s been a lot of fun. I’m very fortunate to work with the group of guys I get to work with,” Petree said. “They make this job feel like it’s not a job.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton