There is no one moment when Cal Bowling became a true college ace. There was never a day when he discovered a new grip for his curveball or suddenly reared back and found a few extra miles per hour for his fastball.
No, it has been a steady progression over the course of his Ball State career that brought him to a point where the Cardinals feel they can walk into any stadium on a Friday night and expect Bowling to give them a chance to win.
"Since I've been here, he's the best pitcher we've had," coach Alex Marconi said.
Considering the pitchers Ball State has had in the last seven years, that is high praise. Since Marconi became an assistant coach in 2006 and head coach in 2010, five Cardinals' pitchers have been selected in the MLB draft, as high as Perci Garner going in the second round in 2010. Kolbrin Vitek could have made it six if he hadn't been drafted as a third baseman the same year.
Marconi doesn't mean Bowling's tools are the best Ball State has had, rather that Bowling knows how to pitch the best.
"Actual pitching savvy," Marconi said. "He doesn't have the 93-mile-per-hour fastball, but he's got four very good pitches at any time."
Scouts call that "pitchability" and Bowling has plenty of it. It has helped him carve up hitters using a fastball that tops out in the upper 80s and an assortment of off-speed pitches. Opponents are hitting .230 against Bowling this year and he is already nine strikeouts away from setting a career-high less than halfway into the season.
Bowling said he hasn't changed anything this season; he's just executing his pitches better. It also helps that he began the season healthy after entering last year still recovering from back surgery. He credits that injury, which kept him out of fall ball last year, with helping turn him into more of a pitcher and less of a thrower.
The injury prevented Bowling from working on what pitching coach Jeremy Plexico was teaching the rest of the pitching staff, but he was still able to absorb the information.
"I was able to pick stuff up and, I don't know, visualize it more than anything," Bowling said. "Not being able to do it makes me obsess over it more."
Bowling also added a slider to his repertoire before the start of last season. Whether it was the extra pitch or a renewed confidence in his pitching philosophy, it worked. Bowling had been Ball State's Saturday starter as a sophomore in 2010 and was reliable, but not spectacular. With Garner and Vitek leaving after the draft, Bowling was left as the ace of the staff, injured or not. Thrust into the role of Friday starter, he set career bests in just about every statistic, from innings pitched to strikeouts. Even as Ball State struggled to win games, he managed to go 5-5, getting credit for a third of the Cardinals' victories.
Bowling's success didn't come as a surprise to anyone at Ball State. Center fielder Wes Winkle is a year younger than Bowling, but the pair has played together since Winkle was 12. They were first teammates on a travel team before playing together at Yorktown and eventually Ball State.
Winkle said Bowling is the same as he always has been.
"He's been this good ever since high school," Winkle said. "In high school, he was the man. We knew we could compete for every game when we had Cal on the mound and it hasn't changed since we've gone to college."
Bowling's teammates aren't the only ones that have noticed. Marconi said after all of Bowling's starts this season, the opposing head coach has mentioned how good he is. Even higher praise came from Alabama-Birmingham assistant Ron Polk, who was head coach for 27 years at Mississippi State and went to the College World Series eight times as a head coach. After Bowling allowed two runs on five hits in eight innings in a no-decision, Polk told Marconi that Bowling is an Southeastern Conference-caliber pitcher.
"There aren't many better compliments that you can get from a guy like Ron Polk other than you're a guy whose [fastball is] mid-to-upper 80s and you're an SEC-rotation guy," Marconi said.
This season, Bowling threw a complete game at Missouri, holding the Tigers to two runs on five hits in a victory. It was Ball State's first victory in two years against a BCS conference team and the biggest stage Bowling had pitched on so successfully.
Results like that have Marconi hopeful that MLB scouts will look past Bowling's radar-gun readings and give him a chance to play professional baseball when his senior season ends in a couple months. With a little more than two months to go before the MLB Draft, it is too early to speculate whether Bowling will get picked. But Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said he thinks some new rules regarding the draft will benefit college seniors, such as Bowling.
Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement gives each team a maximum amount of money it can spend without incurring a stiff tax or forfeiting future draft picks. That, Callis said he believes, will benefit college seniors who are typically cheaper to sign than high school students or college juniors.
"They might not get more money, but they'll go higher in the draft as teams look for ways to create cap space," Callis said.
Bowling said getting drafted has been his goal since he was 10. Marconi said he is willing to do whatever he needs to do to help make that happen.
"He's good enough," Marconi said. "Ultimately, it's up to the scouts to determine if he's worthy of it. I know I'll be working as hard as I can to get him that opportunity."
Until then, Bowling is focusing on finishing his senior year well, hoping to help Ball State make the Mid-American Conference Tournament after missing last season.
"I'm aware it's coming to an end," Bowling said. "That's why I just want to leave it all on the field. I can be tired down the road."