Merced College's run of dominant aces was supposed to be up this year.
Blue Devils baseball coach Nate Devine returned a stable of reliable veteran arms, but none with the stuff of a Shawn Stuart, Jake Sisco or Derek Velazquez.
Apparently no one told Russell Longworth.
The MC sophomore altered his delivery slightly in the fall with the hopes of creating a little extra movement on the ball.
It took the southpaw about a month into the season to effectively find his groove, but once he did, he's been darn near unhittable.
Longworth is 3-2 on the season with a 1.71 ERA and he leads the team in strikeouts (49) and innings pitched (58).
He's only gotten better as the season's worn on. That's a good thing for Merced, which opens a three-game series with rival Fresno City tonight.
Longworth hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in a game since Feb. 9. He's gone at least seven innings in each of his last six starts and has struck out 37 batters in his last four outings.
"He's definitely pitching well right now," Devine said. "From a competitive standpoint, he's always had what it took. His mental toughness ranks up there with anyone we've had.
"But we dropped down his arm angle just a little bit to try and create some funky movement. It's really created some good break down and away on his fastball.
"Then his ability to mix in his changeup off of that has made him very difficult to hit."
Things couldn't have clicked for Longworth at a better time. His complete-game victory over Bakersfield on March 14 marked a turning point in the Blue Devils' season.
MC (14-10, 8-4 Central Valley Conference) entered the contest with SoCal's No. 4 ranked team under .500 and struggling with consistency.
"We weren't playing like we knew we should be, and somebody needed to step up," Longworth said. "By changing my arm angle, the release point of my pitches are all the same now. They all look the same coming out.
"I'm very surprised what a difference it's made, but I feel blessed to be able to help out my team."
The Blue Devils have run off six wins in seven games since Bakersfield and enter tonight's three-game showdown with rival Fresno City (16-8, 10-2 CVC) just two games back in the standings.
First pitch is set for 7 p.m. at Blue Devil Field.
"That was one of our major goals, to be within striking distance of Fresno City when we got to this series," Devine said. "We've been able to do that. Now we have to take advantage of it.
"This one is always fun because you play a couple game under the lights. There's always bigger crowds. And you know that both teams are typically going to turn in some quality baseball."
Fresno and Merced have won the last six CVC titles with the winner of this series going on to win the whole thing.
Both teams enter the series hot, with the Rams having won nine of their last 11 games.
Ryan McDaniel will get the start tonight for the Blue Devils, with Longworth set to toe the rubber at Fresno City on Thursday night.
"I think I fit in pretty good for the Thursday start," Longworth said. "With my experience and my demeanor, I think I can definitely win one at their place.
"My confidence is obviously high right now, but more than anything else, I'm just going out and having a lot of fun. We train really hard during the week, so that game days are easy. When you're having fun like we've been the last couple weeks, it's even easier.
"If we go out and have a great week, we'll be in first place. If we just have a good week and win two, we're still right there with them. We can't afford to have a bad week."