All-American Dennis embraces new role

Over the past couple of years, Braves pitcher Matt Dennis played a significant role in the success Bradley’s baseball team has enjoyed. The junior settled into his role as a closer during his first two years with the team. However, this season, Dennis is making the change from All-American closer to starter this year.

So far, it has been a very smooth transition. Dennis was awarded the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Week for his almost-flawless performance in the win against Notre Dame. He pitched 7.0 innings, struck out 10 batters and surrendered only three singles and one walk.

However, Dennis was quick to pass the praise off himself.

“It’s definitely nice to get that kind of recognition,” Dennis said. “It usually goes towards me as a pitcher, but you don’t really get to look at the guys who are around that help build that. Zach Fairchild did a great job behind the plate, [and] the coaches had a great scouting report. I don’t think they get enough praise for what they do.”

Looking back at his pre-Bradley career, Dennis said baseball has always been a part of his life.

“Pitching has always been my thing,” Dennis said. “When I was younger, I grew a lot faster than the other kids. I was always looked at as the big power-armed kid. I think I was six feet tall in eighth grade, so I was always advanced in that sense.”

Dennis attended Rolling Meadows High School in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. He was a three-year letter-winner and was dominant on the mound during his senior year. He finished with an 8-1 record and a 1.83 ERA, averaging 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Dennis was named the 2013 MSL East Conference Player of the Year and captain of the Daily Herald’s all-area team, and he earned all-state honors from the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association.

Bradley was one of two Division I schools to recruit Dennis. He enrolled at Bradley in the fall of 2013.

“I wasn’t a fan of big schools,” Dennis said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could grow athletically and academically. I really like the facilities here; I like where we played. The coaching staff was really hands-on and were straight up with you, and I liked that. Coming here really allowed me to improve and get to the next level that I’m playing at right now.”

Dennis said he wasn’t named the official closer at the beginning of his freshman year because the coaching staff wanted to ease him into college ball. But, in his first college appearance, he earned the win in the first game of the season after pitching a scoreless ninth and 10th inning.

In his second appearance a few games later, he pitched from the ninth inning to the 12th inning without giving up a run, earning the second win of his career. Dennis adjusted quickly to the new level of play, and he went on to go 4-3 with a 4.12 ERA and six saves for the year.

“I was a starter in high school, so this was a new experience,” Dennis said. “It helped me grow because I was in pressure situations right away.”

Dennis remained in the same role for his sophomore season and improved immensely. He went 3-0 with a 1.51 ERA and had 12 saves, setting the Braves’ single season saves record and earning him the career record at 18 in only two seasons. The success during his sophomore season earned him second-team All-MVC and third-team National College Baseball Writers Association All-American honors.

This year, Dennis is taking his success from the bullpen to rotation and is the Braves No. 1 starter, and baseball head coach Elvis Dominguez knows why he’s been successful.

“He’s a guy that has three pitches, and that’s what made him successful in the closer role,” Dominguez said. “He’s earned it.”

However, the pitcher said he was estatic to make the switch.

“I think guys like being starters the most,” Dennis said. “You always want to be the guy that has the ball for those big innings. That’s always been my mentality. I want the ball for the longest time I can have it.”

He also said there were a few adjustments he had to make in his new role.

“In the closer, you want to give it all you got just to get those last few outs,” Dennis said. “As a starter, you want to go seven or eight innings, so you have to pace yourself. It’s not like you’re holding yourself back, but you have to be careful not to drain yourself as a starter right away.”

Dennis said his goal for this year is to become the best pitcher that he can be.

“I want to be able to go there and have [my teammates] feel comfortable with me on the mound,” he said. “I want to be able to go out there and compete against the other team’s best guy.”

If Dennis’ improvement this year will be anything like his improvement last year, then Bradley has definitely found its ace.