Woodstock River Bandits pitcher Tristen Bayless fires a pitch during the first inning against New Market in Woodstock on Friday.

WOODSTOCK – As Woodstock River Bandits pitching coach Charlie Shepard got to know Tristen Bayless at the start of the Valley Baseball League season, he was shocked to learn just how limited the left-hander’s role has been at the college level.

With Bayless’ stuff, his approach to each outing on the mound and his coachability, Shepard remembered thinking, how was he not a starter?

Bayless, a Texas native, was set up for life as a pitcher at the next level after a stellar senior season at Hutto High School in 2016, his first as a regular hurler at any level, he said. That year, he went 8-1 with a 0.93 ERA and a school-record 158 strikeouts, tossing two no-hitters. In a perfect game that April, Bayless struck out 19 of 21 batters.

“I was like the strikeout king of Texas and people just started noticing me,” Bayless said last week.

The left-hander was drafted as an outfielder/pitcher out of high school by the Washington Nationals in the 35th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Though Bayless said his goal was to go pro out of high school to prove he belonged at that level, he’d harbored hopes of getting selected earlier in the draft and wasn’t satisfied with the money the Nationals offered.

Bayless had an offer in hand from Texas A&M that he couldn’t refuse and chose to put a professional career on hold in favor of college ball. His playing career hasn’t exactly been fluid since.

Bayless, citing a “little bit of a disagreement” during the summer following his freshman year, lasted one season at Texas A&M after logging only three innings in two relief appearances for the Aggies in 2017.

He pitched for McLennan Community College in 2018, making 15 total appearances (eight starts) and compiling a 2-3 record, a 3.86 ERA and 41 strikeouts.

Bayless returned to the Division I level last season when he joined the University of Houston, where as a junior he logged 5 ⅔ innings in 14 relief appearances as a left-handed specialist buried in a Cougars pitching staff that Bayless said was flush with experienced arms.

“With what I’ve seen this summer and the conversations about ‘what happened here, what went here,’ I think that we have worked out that he hadn’t found the right situation,” Shepard said of Bayless’ erratic college career. “It’s like we had one conversation and he said ‘they just looked at me as a lefty to get lefties out.’ And I’ve been (coaching) pitching for 27 years. I looked at him and I said ‘you’re not a starter?’ Whoever they got starting must be damn good.”

Bayless has likely opened some eyes this summer in the Valley Baseball League.

In his first six appearances (five starts) for Woodstock, he’d gone 2-2 with a 1.95 ERA, 43 strikeouts in 27 ⅔ innings. Through the middle of last week, Bayless – who now lacks the number of innings required to qualify for the league leaderboard in ERA – led the VBL in ERA and strikeouts.

Bayless, who had previously made just one start since June 21, made his sixth start of the summer in Friday’s home game against New Market but lasted just two batters before succumbing to heat exhaustion on a day that reached over 100 degrees.

Bayless was a Valley League all-star selection – he earned MVP of a rain-shortened all-star game on July 7 after striking out two in an inning pitched – and was chosen for the VBL roster for last week’s Southeast Collegiate Prospect Showcase in Clary, North Carolina. In the showcase, he got the start against the Florida Collegiate Summer League on July 16 and struck out six in two perfect innings.

“The goal was just to kind of come here and try to regain confidence, regain throwing strikes and stuff and trying to just loosen up,” Bayless said of his VBL experience. “I’m too uptight during school and coach just told me come here, just throw a few innings, try to be relaxed and throw strikes. That’s all I’ve worked on this whole summer.”

Bayless boasts a five-pitch arsenal that includes a 12-6 curveball, a slider, a changeup, a two-seam fastball and a four-seam fastball that he said routinely sits anywhere from 88 to 91 mph but has touched 94 this summer.

The slider is his go-to out pitch against left-handed hitters, he said, adding that his curveball is effective against lefties and right-handers.

Though Bayless struggles a bit with walks – he dealt 10 in 5 ⅔ innings at Houston last season and has walked 20 in 27 ⅔ innings with Woodstock – he avoids hard contact when opposing batters are able to put the ball in play. Opposing hitters are batting just .161 against Bayless this summer while slugging only .189. Bayless has allowed just three extra-base hits – all doubles – this summer.

“Movement, big time,” Bayless said of avoiding hard contact. “Staying back, like this summer I’ve been working on staying back, kind of filling up the strike zone, of course, but staying back has been helping my arm-side run. It’s been helping my slider move a little bit more. My change has been pretty good and my curveball’s just been outstanding, so it’s been good.”

And while Bayless’ performance has been a big part of a turnaround that has seen the River Bandits emerge from a five-win season in 2018 to second place in the North Division with the playoffs set to start later this week, first-year Woodstock manager Mike Bocock said Bayless’ numbers only scratch the surface of his impact.

“You look at his numbers, you look at the way he pitches, he’ really good. But I’ll tell you what, what makes him even better is he’s a tremendous teammate and he is a guy that works with the other guys,” said Bocock, who has won seven Valley League championships as a head coach for four different teams in 23 seasons. “He brings more than just him pitching to the field every night. He is a class A, top of the line teammate. And he’s such a good person.”

Shepard also heaped praise on Bayless, calling him a coachable athlete who possesses a certain “charisma” in terms of how he carries himself, how he executes on the mound and how he treats his teammates.

The River Bandits just have a different feel, Shepard said, when Bayless is on the mound.

“The key is he wants the ball,” Shepard said. “He’s aggressive in the zone. He challenges hitters and he’s got good stuff. And when you throw that combination in with a pitcher, you can be deadly because a pitcher who gets himself in trouble is a pitcher who doubts himself. Tristen believes in his stuff.

“Now, he’s a solid kid. Like Mike said, great teammate. He takes charge when he’s not on the mound. He’s my go-through from there (in the dugout) to the bullpen on the walkie. The other pitchers look up to him and basically what he’s saying is what I’m saying. I can trust Tristen.”

Bayless said that while his goal, like most ballplayers, is to reach “the Show,” he was unsure last week whether a pro career was in his immediate future. Discussions with coaches and family still need to happen on that front, he said.

“He wants to be at that next level and he’s willing to do what it takes the right way,” Shepard said. “And whether it’s myself or his next pitching coach in college or wherever, he’ll listen. Really, his ceiling right now is unlimited. He’s a lefty. He probably, just off the top of my head, (throws) 88, 89, might hit 90 but not consistently. Good movement, good slider, nice breaking ball. And God did him right, made him a left-hander.”

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com