It wasn't supposed to be this way, but Winthrop sure doesn't mind.
Heading into this weekend's series hosting High Point, the Eagles have been bolstered recently by sterling starting pitching. Ryan Schwartz and Hamilton Bennett were supposed to be inning-eaters and have been.
Ryan Mullins, 2007 relief specialist, was not.
"I've been wanting to be a starter since I was out of high school," Mullins said last week, after hurling 5 2-3 innings in what became an 8-1 win over No. 24 Coastal Carolina. "It's just that things have fallen right for me and I finally got a chance."
The senior southpaw is tied with Schwartz for the team lead with three wins, but Mullins is 3-0. His 2.22 ERA would be fourth in the Big South Conference if he had enough innings to qualify. He's struck out 20 and walked only seven in just over 28 innings, winning all of his last three starts.
All from a guy that transferred from College of Wooster with a 7-0 record and a reputation for top-notch relief, without a start to his name.
"It doesn't surprise me," said fellow lefty Billy Tinsley, who transferred to Winthrop the same time as Mullins. "Even when he was a reliever, he had good stuff. The only question in becoming a starter was stamina and endurance."
Still, Mullins' success as a starter has been a revelation. Consider:
• Mullins tied Wooster's record for appearances with 22 in 2005 and was called a Big South-leading 33 times last season. He was on the hill so much that Nickelback could have retired on just the royalty checks from Mullins' entrance music, yet he never started.
• Mullins isn't overpowering at 6-foot (if he stands very straight) and doesn't blow batters away. But he's got four pitches in his repertoire and good command on all of them.
"When you don't throw overly hard, he's got enough stuff to get through a lineup three times," coach Joe Hudak said. "That's what you want."
• He could have had a dead arm after the use last year, since after Tyler McBride was lost with an injury mid-season and Tinsley withdrew from school, Mullins and Dane Yoder were the only two lefties on the staff. More often than not, when a southpaw was needed, the bullpen gate would open and there'd be Ryan Scott Mullins, left hose at the ready.
Mullins sat out fall practice because of pain in his arm, diagnosed as a partially torn ligament. He consulted with Dr. James Andrews, he of the Tommy John surgeries, and got some pleasant news.
"He said to just take a couple of months off and it would heal on its own," Mullins shrugged.
Whatever went on in his elbow turned him into the Eagles' No. 3 weekend starter.
He could be getting a promotion against the Panthers. Hudak said Schwartz will start today, but while Bennett and Mullins will handle the other two games, when they pitch is the question. Mullins could go tomorrow or take over his familiar Sunday role.
Regardless, his sudden explosion has given the Eagles three quality left-handed starters. Tinsley, who began the season as the No. 3 starter, has been out of the bullpen lately but said he doesn't mind in the slightest, considering Mullins' success.
"I just kind of said, whoever performs, whoever throws well, deserves to get the spot," Tinsley said. "I think that's the best way to create a good team."
Next up are the Panthers, a strikingly similar team to the Eagles. High Point started slowly but has won eight of its last 10, including five of its overall 12 wins in conference.
Winthrop (13-19, 3-3 Big South) is hoping to continue its recent streak, having beaten two straight Top 25 teams on the road. Although HP is last in the Big South in batting and pitching, the Eagles can't afford to overlook anybody.
"I was really surprised they struggled so much early," Hudak said. "They're coming here at a time when they're playing very, very well. But we're playing with a lot of confidence right now, too."
• NOTE: Freshman infielder Sean Sullivan recently won two tickets to the Final Four, including air and hotel fare. Sullivan put his name in for a drawing while selling raffle tickets at a Winthrop basketball game and got his name chosen for a halftime promotion, where he and other students competed for a shooting contest with a $50,000 first prize.
"I couldn't do that one because I played high school basketball," Sullivan said. "But I was still in the drawing and they pulled my name."
The only problem was the dates. Sullivan was scheduled to be with the Eagles at the Coastal Carolina series last weekend and Winthrop played at Georgia on April 8, the day after the national championship game.
"There was no hesitation on my part," Sullivan said. "I wasn't going to miss our games."
He gave the tickets to his parents, John and Susan, who he said had a great time in San Antonio.
HIGH POINT (12-20, 5-4 BIG SOUTH) AT WINTHROP (13-19, 3-3)
• When: 7 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
• Where: The Winthrop Ballpark
• Tickets: Available at the box office -- $5 adults, $3 children college-age and under
• On the Web: Live Gametracker available at winthropeagles.com
• Promotions: Children wearing a baseball jersey get in free every Friday throughout the season. Fans bringing a church bulletin get in for $1 every Sunday throughout the season. The first 100 people through the gate on Sunday throughout the season receive a coupon for a free ice cream at McDonald's. All fans can get in for $1 on Monday-Wednesday throughout the season.
• On deck: Winthrop plays at Wake Forest at 3 p.m. on Wednesday.