Former Mizzou Tigers pitching stars recall how late coach Brian DeLunas gave them an edge

·6 min read
AP file photo

Years before his tenure with the Kansas City Royals, which included an All-Star appearance in 2011, Aaron Crow was given some advice that changed the way he pitched.

Brian DeLunas, then a volunteer assistant and pitching coach for the Missouri Tigers, suggested that Crow grip the ball a little bit differently, showing the future first-round MLB Draft pick how to adjust his finger placement on the seams when pitching breaking balls and fastballs.

It was a small tweak, but no one had brought it up to Crow before. And it made all the difference.

“I couldn’t tell you how much it helped me,” Crow told The Star. “Because all I threw is two-seamers and sliders, and just having a feel for what I was pitching and getting them to move just a little bit more can be the difference between a ground ball or strikeout or two-run homer.”

So when current Mizzou baseball coach Steve Bieser called Crow last year to get his thoughts on hiring DeLunas for a second stint with the Tigers, it was a no-brainer.

“If you got a chance to get this guy, you gotta jump on it,” Crow told him.

DeLunas rejoined the Missouri program last June after four years of working in the major leagues with the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets.

But he didn’t get the chance to coach a regular season game for the Tigers. DeLunas, 46, died Sunday night after an extended battle with kidney disease. He is survived by his wife, Johannah, son, Rory and stepdaughter, Maren.

“Words cannot describe how heartbroken we are in the loss of our friend, Brian DeLunas,” Bieser said. “In the months since his return to Mizzou, he has made an indelible impact on our team through his love of the game and his players along with his inspirational courage off the field.”

A St. Louis native, DeLunas was a standout pitcher at Oakville High School. He went on to play at Missouri Baptist University, among other programs, but his playing career was ultimately cut short due to injury.

After some time away, DeLunas got back into the sport in 2004 and coached for several high school and club teams in the St. Louis area before taking a volunteer position at Missouri under former head coach Tim Jamieson and pitching coach Tony Vitello in 2006.

During his first tenure with the program through the 2007-09 seasons, Missouri won 116 games and went to three NCAA Regionals. DeLunas played a major role in developing Crow and Kyle Gibson, another standout Tiger and first-round MLB Draft selection.

On March 10, 2007, Gibson, in his freshman season, was warming up to close out a game at Dallas Baptist. He had never thrown a slider in a game but decided to try it out a few times in the bullpen.

“Hey, Coach, I’m working on this little cutter thing,” Gibson asked DeLunas. “What do you think about it?”

Gibson threw the slider a few more times.

“Man, I think it’s ready,” DeLunas said. “I think you should throw it in the game.”

“It kind of surprised me because that’s not really something that you do,” Gibson recalled to The Star. “You don’t necessarily just throw in something in the bullpen a couple of times and take it to the game in a big situation.

“... But he had that confidence about him and he just had that kind of impact on people. … That little nod of OK and that little nod of confidence really jump started my slider to be a pitch I still throw today.”

Gibson, named an All-Star with the Texas Rangers in 2021, trusted DeLunas as much as anyone in the sport. He continued to play a pivotal role throughout his career, even directing Gibson to a trainer and ranch in Florida that he said “changed the course of my career” when he needed to rehab his shoulder after the 2016 season.

DeLunas was already dealing with kidney issues during his days as a volunteer for Mizzou. He was open about it, players said, though he was always one to say he was feeling great, more concerned with how other people were doing. He eventually had a transplant, with his brother, Adam, as the donor, in his 30s.

In 2014, DeLunas co-founded Premier Pitching and Performance (P3) in St. Louis, where he trained several college and professional pitchers.

He was regarded as an esteemed mind within the sport and built enough of a reputation that soon enough the major leagues came calling, despite the fact that he had never played or coached at the professional level. He joined the Mariners before the 2018 season as bullpen coach and later served as their director of pitching strategy.

DeLunas spent the 2021 season as a special projects coordinator for the Mets before rejoining the Missouri program. He was set to coach his nephew, Austin Cheeley, who joined the team as a transfer from Middle Tennessee State.

Cheeley was playing in the MLB Draft League, a collegiate baseball league, over the summer, when the news broke that DeLunas had taken the job. Cheeley was on a team with a couple of Mizzou players, but he hadn’t been allowed to say anything until things were official.

One day they were having a barbecue by the pool when Missouri pitcher Drew Garrett got a call from his advisor that DeLunas had gotten the job. Garrett’s eyes immediately lit up — he’d never met him before, but everyone in the baseball community knew how special of a coach DeLunas was.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen him that excited since then,” Cheeley told The Star. “I know the pitching staff struggled last year, but bringing on somebody of Brian’s caliber, someone who has such a huge impact on the baseball world and even the world outside of that…everyone was bought in from day one. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in any place I’ve been as a team.”

Crow, Gibson and other former players were ecstatic DeLunas was back with the program too. Because they knew from firsthand experience that DeLunas was not just a brilliant coaching mind, but a kind person who truly cared about those around him.

“He wanted to have an impact,” Gibson said. “He was just really selfless. He battled through a lot of what he did all the while staying focused on trying to help people.”

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