I was extremely grateful and proud of the phenomenal professionalism and knowledge presented at Carson-Newman.Michael Cogliano, 2015 / Physical Education Teacher / Rush Strong School
Gardner found a home at Carson-Newman
By David Driver
Bowie, Maryland - After limited action in two seasons as a pitcher, Will Gardner decided to transfer from the baseball program at a Tennessee public university after his sophomore year.
His landing spot was very familiar – with the program at Carson-Newman University under the leadership of coach Tom Griffin.
"Jefferson City has always just been down the road," said Gardner, 25, a graduate of Morristown West High School. "I didn’t want to move too far away from home. I had been taking lessons since I was little with coach Griffin. Something about Carson-Newman just felt so right."
The move paid off for Gardner.
After a heavy workload as a junior and senior, the right-hander pitcher was drafted in the 21st round by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Carson-Newman in 2018.
This season he advanced to the Double-A level for the first time, finishing the season on Sept. 19 with the Altoona (PA) Curve of the Northeast League in the Pittsburgh system. Altoona is less than two hours from Pittsburgh and Gardner was been able to see the Pirates play at home during off days this past season.
"A lot of cred has to go to coach Griff," said Gardner. "He built such a good program that not only focuses on baseball but as a man and growing your faith as well. He knows that baseball at some point is going to end for everybody.
"I don't think I'm playing baseball at 25 right now if it wasn't for him, for sure," Gardner added. "He gave me a second chance to play. He was instrumental in contacting scouts and got me the initial looks. This career I have made for myself, a lot of credit to him. Just getting drafted was such an honor."
Gardner played for low Single-A Greensboro in 2019 and had an ERA of 3.00 in 30 games out of the bullpen.
After a rough start to this season, Gardner decided to change his arm motion and become a sidearm hurler.
That was fitting since one of his mentors is pitcher Steve Cishek, a former standout at Carson-Newman who has pitched in the Major Leagues since 2010. Cishek was drafted out of Carson-Newman by the Marlins in the fifth round in 2007, finished a league-high 62 games for the Marlins in 2013 and had an ERA of 2.97 in 69 games through mid-September with the Angels.
"This guy made it and came from the same place I did and made it," Gardner said.
Gardner exchanged texts and video with Cishek about making the adjustment to throwing from a sidearm motion.
"He is an unbelievable guy and a role model to look after," Gardner said of the Massachusetts native.
This year, Gardner was 2-5 with an ERA of 7.71 in 33 games out of the bullpen for Altoona, though he didn’t allow a run in three of his last five outings. He pitched two scoreless innings in Bowie as Altoona beat the Baysox.
Last year, Gardner had to work out on his own after the pandemic forced the minor league season to be called off.
"About 10 days into spring training, we got sent home," Gardner said. "All of our team were staying ready and throwing and being ready during the summer."
But the call to return to the diamond never came in 2020.
"I have thrown consistently for a year and a half. This year has been a ton of kinks," he said. "I went from low Single-A in 2019 to Double-A this year. That has been a big jump."
Among the former Carson-Newman teammates that he saw this past season were Dawson Langhorne, the brother of former C-N baseball standout Brett Langhorne; and Eric Lynch, who is an accountant in New York and saw Gardner when he played in Somerset, New Jersey.
Gardner saw Dawson Langhorne when Altoona was in Richmond, Virginia. Brett was drafted in the 10th round of the 2018 Major League draft by the Atlanta Braves. He played for Single-A Rome, Georgia this year and hit .189 with seven home runs.
Gardner married in January and plans to spend time with his wife in Tennessee while training this off-season as he prepares for the 2022 season.
"Griffin has just instilled this mentality that through Christ, you really can do anything. That has been my mentality," Gardner said.
Editor's note: David Driver played college baseball at Eastern Mennonite in Virginia and has written about the minor leagues for 30 years. He can be reached @DaytonVaDriver.