KANSAS CITY -- Gary McClure, the head baseball coach at Austin Peay University, still remembers the first time he saw Rowdy Hardy.
McClure was scouting a Tennessee high school all-star game and recalled a tall, skinny left-handed pitcher from McNairy Central dominate hitters with little velocity and plenty of movement.
The hurler, Hardy, threw between 70-75 mph. He was one of the softest tossers at the showcase -- and one of its best pitchers.
"He was so skinny he looked like he was malnourished," McClure recalls. "But his ball moved all over the place."
McClure was impressed by Hardy. While many other coaches and talent evaluators were turned away by Hardy's lack of velocity, McClure saw a loose arm, a body with potential and a guy who knew how to pitch.
"I really liked him, but a lot of people didn't," McClure said.
After a stop at the University of Mississippi and a junior college, Hardy eventually went to Austin Peay. Three years later, Hardy gained just a few miles per hour on his fastball. However, he left with a school-record 32 wins and an Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year Award.
About 16 months after he graduated from college, the 24-year-old Hardy, who went undrafted, has dominated professional hitters the same way he did in high school and college.
While his fastball runs at 80-82 mph, Hardy, 6-foot-4 and 170 pounds, is still 15-4 with a 2.44 ERA for Class A Wilmington. Hardy, called the best control pitcher in the Carolina League by Baseball America, leads all Minor Leaguers in fewest walks per nine innings (0.84).
"He understands what kind of pitcher he is," Wilmington pitching coach Steve Luebber said.
Hardy has impressed KC's front office and will start next season at Double-A Wichita.
"He has a below average fastball, but isn't afraid to pitch inside," J.J. Picollo, director of player development, said. "The right-hander [hitters] will crowd the plate, but he will work inside, and he has command of all three pitches. Like Tom Glavine, he will push the umpire's strike zone as far outside as he can."
Hardy quickly is becoming a fan favorite among the Royals faithful. Message boards yield "I love Rowdy Hardy" quotes and constant chatter about a pitcher who is trying to buck the system, a pitcher who is trying to make the Major Leagues with a below average fastball.
"I kind of think everybody loves an underdog," Hardy said. "I am not the prototypical No. 1 draft choice-type guy. I was seen as a guy who could pitch a little bit and probably not make it very far."
Hardy starts playing baseball
Leland Frank Hardy was born in Dallas. He was called Rowdy immediately from birth and hasn't known another name.
"It was probably because he was so active," Frank Hardy, Rowdy's father, said.
"I have never been afraid to go inside someone's happy zone. I really have had no fears and no qualms about going in there as much as I can."
-- Rowdy Hardy
Rowdy grew up in Bethel Springs, Tenn., a town of about 700 people. Hardy started playing baseball at a young age. However, his great control wasn't formed in the backyard in games of catch, nor with a coach. Instead, every day during the summer, Hardy's mom told Rowdy and his two older sisters to head outside.
Because the town was so small, Hardy didn't have many other kids to play with. He often would walk down to his driveway, pick up rocks and throw them at trees. It was a daily experience for years. After tossing thousands of rocks, Hardy honed his control.
"I probably got in trouble for it a few times, throwing all of the rocks out of the driveway," he said with a laugh. "I did that my whole life growing up until I got to high school. I guess that was how I learned it."
Baseball-wise, he quickly learned pitching was more fun than playing the outfield, and he started developing himself on the mound. Frank Hardy wouldn't let his son throw a curveball, so Rowdy threw a fastball and straight changeup.
Hardy quickly understood he was a different type of pitcher from most prep hurlers, a pitcher that couldn't "out-stuff" hitters or blow a fastball by a batter. Hardy, calling himself a "different" pitcher, knew he had to attack hitters and use both sides of the plate.
"I figured out that I need to throw inside to be able to throw outside," he said. "I have never been afraid to go inside someone's happy zone. I really have had no fears and no qualms about going in there as much as I can. It doesn't really bother me."
That aggression led Hardy to the all-star game the summer before his senior year -- where he caught the eye of McClure.
Hardy enters college
Hardy had what college coaches call "projection." The lean, lanky left-handed pitcher was over six feet tall with loose arm action. Coaches took one look at Hardy and envisioned him gaining 20 pounds and becoming a power pitcher. While McClure offered Hardy a scholarship, Hardy went to Ole Miss, an NCAA Division I powerhouse.
Hardy red-shirted his only season at the elite program, but he considers it a very important developmental season. While Hardy never gained much weight -- or life on his fastball -- with the Rebels, he understood how to pitch.
"Mechanical stuff, ways to pitch people, different grips, your mentality -- all the finer points of pitching that a lot of high school kids don't really get into," Hardy said. "I had a lot of time to sit there and watch and listen and really take in everything I could about the game."
Hardy understood playing time at Ole Miss was scarce. The Rebels consistently brought in talent that could throw in the mid-90s -- players who were physically ahead of Hardy.
"It would be tough for a little guy like me to step up and be in a situation that I really wanted to be in, but I really enjoyed my time there," Hardy said.
Hardy spent one year at a junior college before he ended up at Austin Peay, about three hours from home. He finished 32-12 in three years with the Governors, made two All-Conference teams and earned the 2005 Ohio Valley Pitcher of the Year award.
McClure, who has coached multiple professional pitchers, including Baltimore's Jamie Walker and Seattle's George Sherrill, calls Hardy the best pitcher "without question" in Austin Peay's history.
"He pitched inside better than any left-handed pitcher I've ever had," McClure said. "He was our No. 1 guy. When he pitched, you knew you were going to win. He has to go down as the best pitcher ever in this league."
Hardy made one change in his first scrimmage with Austin Peay. A self-described "tinkerer," Hardy, who always has thrown with an arm slot slightly below three-quarters, likes to experiment with different grips. He had always used a straight change, but he picked up the circle change grip, threw it and knew immediately he had the solution.
"I had messed around with a circle change, but I could never get it to do what it was supposed to," he said. "One day I just picked it up and threw it a little different, and it has been that way ever since. I can't really explain it; it just happened."
He also understood a principle that has made Jamie Moyer one of the longest-tenured pitchers in baseball.
Slower is better.
At times, Hardy would try to throw harder. That rarely yielded success.
"His ball would straighten out," McClure said.
So Hardy continued to develop what had worked for him: working the corners, throwing strikes, using a low-velocity fastball and great offspeed pitches for effectiveness.
"People were always saying how filthy he was," McClure said.
Professional career begins
Hardy thought he may be drafted after the 2005 college season, the same year he won the Pitcher of the Year honor. In the postseason, he faced 2006 No. 1 overall pick and current Royals farmhand Luke Hochevar and nationally ranked University of Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Hardy pitched well in that contest, containing the high-octane Vols through the first seven innings.
Still, the season and postseason performances didn't yield a draft slot. Even though his offspeed stuff earned praise from collegiate personnel, Hardy's fastball wasn't considered professional quality.
"I had guys telling me I was going to go here or there, but it just didn't work out for me," he said. "I was given the minimum [contract], stuff that I knew I could get the next year."
After he posted a 9-3 record and 2.58 ERA in 2006, Hardy exercised a rule that allows fifth-year seniors to sign before the Draft. He inked a deal with Kansas City scout Spencer Graham. Hardy went straight to Advanced Rookie Idaho Falls and earned the team's Pitcher of the Year honor after posting a 5-3 record and a 52-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
He kept the same approach.
"I didn't have to change my game much and could just throw it where I needed to, got ahead and pitched the way I had always pitched in college and in high school," Hardy said. "It happened to work out."
2007 and the future
Hardy added a breaking ball this spring. The pitch, a slider-slurve-type offering, still is developing, but it's provided another pitch for his arsenal.
"The big change from last year to this year is that he has relied more on his breaking ball," Luebber said.
The new pitch helped Hardy record a 10-1 record and a 1.51 ERA through the first three months of 2007. Because it was Hardy's first professional season, Picollo said the Royals wanted Hardy to spend a full year at Wilmington. Hardy hasn't kept up the incredible early numbers, but he still is one of the best pitchers, statistics-wise, in the Minor Leagues.
"He is going to have to prove he can get people out at every level before he can move onto the next level."
-- Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo
"It's tough," outfielder Orlando Rosales of the Astros' Class A Salem club told the Roanoke Times. "You're used to guys that throw in the 90s, and this guy is topping out at, what, 80?"
Entering Monday, Hardy has three complete games, a 90-to-15 strikeout-to-walk rate and has allowed just six homers in 159 innings. He also posted nearly identical splits, allowing a .226 average versus lefties and a .236 mark versus righties.
"You want to make a name for yourself, and to have this kind of year is definitely pretty big for me," he said.
There still are doubts Hardy can succeed at a higher level. No non-knuckleballer has enjoyed sustained success with a Hardy-esque fastball. Even Jamie Moyer, the patriarch of soft tossers, was faster than Hardy at this age, and he didn't have consistent success until his early 30s.
The lack of velocity also likely will slow Hardy's development. Luebber said 70-80 percent of control pitchers who have a solid season at Class A don't succeed at Double-A. Picollo agrees Hardy's road isn't easy.
"He is going to have to prove he can get people out at every level before he can move onto the next level," Picollo said.
But Hardy's ready. After all, it's something he has done since high school.
"I might not light the radar gun or anything, but I have something that is absolutely working for me, and until I get shelled for a year, I can't really say that I can't make it," he said. "Throwing 94 really doesn't matter to me. I may not be the next Roger Clemens, but if I am going to be a lefty setup guy for 10 years, that doesn't really matter to me.
Just pitching in the Major Leagues in some form or fashion is what I have been hoping for."
A franchise and fan base hopes, too.