July 17, 2019

Former PU Baseball Star Gross Bets On Himself, Ends Up Starring at Duke, Getting Drafted by Twins

GROSS PROFIT: Ben Gross fires a pitch in action this spring in a post-graduate season for the Duke University baseball team. Gross, a former Princeton High and Princeton University standout, went 8-4 with a 4.40 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings for the Blue Devils, helping the team advance to the NCAA Super Regional. Gross was chosen by the Minnesota Twins in the 10th round of the MLB draft and is currently pitching for Elizabethton (Tenn.), the organization’s rookie-level farm team in the Appalachian League. (Photo provided courtesy of Duke Athletics)

By Bill Alden

Ben Gross bet on himself and it paid off big time.

After producing a second-team All-Ivy League campaign in 2018 in his senior season for the Princeton University baseball team, star pitcher Gross was picked by the Houston Astros in the 34th round of the Major League Draft.

With a season of college eligibility remaining due to being sidelined by a shoulder injury, Gross declined to sign with the Astros and instead decided to play for Duke University where he had been accepted in a graduate business program.

Hard-throwing righty Gross thrived for the Blue Devils, going 8-4 with a 4.40 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings, helping the team advance to the NCAA Nashville Super Regional. His success at Duke paid dividends, as Gross saw a big jump in his pro status, getting chosen by the Minnesota Twins in the 10th round of the MLB draft. He is currently pitching for Elizabethton (Tenn.), the organization’s rookie-level farm team in the Appalachian League.

When Gross joined the Duke staff, his role was far from certain. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to contribute, I don’t think the coaches were either,” said the 6’1, 210 pound Gross, who starred at Princeton High before heading across town to start his college career.

“I knew I was going to pitch and I knew I was going to pitch big innings. It was just a matter of figuring out where I was going to fit into the rotation.”

After beginning the season in the bullpen, some injuries landed Gross in the starting rotation and emerged as a Friday night starter.

For Gross, a major challenge in competing for Duke was adjusting to the high level of play in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

“The margin for error is less,” said Gross. “The Ivy League has some pretty talented players but you can afford to pitch around those guys in the lineup whereas in the ACC, everyone in the lineup can hurt you.”

In order to excel in the high-powered league, Gross had to fine-tune his mind-set on the mound.

“Early in the year, I was focusing on some mechanical things that I was trying to work on and it didn’t work out when you are trying to get some pretty good hitters out,” said Gross.

“Right around the time of the transition from reliever to starter, I focused on executing pitches and competing rather than mechanics. That combined with the fact that I hadn’t thrown that many innings so other teams didn’t have a great scouting report on me led to a handful of pretty good outings.”

With Gross shoring up the Duke rotation, the Blue Devils caught fire down the stretch, going 12-6 in their last 18 ACC regular season games.

“I think if you were to ask anyone on the team, including the coaches, after the UNC series when we where 3-9 in ACC play, everyone would have told you we are a fringe ACC tournament team and we are not going to make a regional,” said Gross.

“Then we swept Pitt at home; that was the fire under us, we said let’s get it going, we still have a shot here and then we put together a few more good series and we found ourselves in a regional. From then on, it is postseason baseball and anything can happen.”

Despite the late surge, Gross and his teammates were on the edge of their seats as the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed.

“We were watching the broadcast of the selection show and we are seeing some of the other fringe teams get in and we don’t see our name,” said Gross.

“We get to the commercial break halfway through the show and we are all sort of biting our fingernails — ‘holy crap — we might not get in,’ and then we saw saw our name pop up and we were going to Morgantown.”

Facing Texas A&M to start the regional, Gross came through with a sparkling performance in an 8-5 win over the Aggies, giving up one run and striking out five in seven innings of work to get the victory.

“It was fun, a game like that was the reason I went to Duke in the first place,” said Gross.

“I just lived in the moment. I tried not to let the moment get the best of me even though I was really excited to pitch in a game like that. It turned out to be one of my better outings this year.”

A week later at the Nashville Super Regional, Gross produced another superb outing, getting the win in an 18-5 win over Vanderbilt, the eventual national champion. 

“Against that team there was no margin for error,” said Gross, who had seven strikeouts and gave up five runs in 5 1/3 innings.

“I was getting swings and misses on fastballs up in the zone. It was commanding that pitch where I wanted to and mixing speeds and keeping them off balance working off the fast ball. They got their hits and got on base, it was a matter of limiting the damage.”

While Duke ended up falling to eventual national champion Vanderbilt 2-1 in the best-of-three series to finish with a 35-27 overall record, the sour ending didn’t outweigh the positives Gross gained from his Duke experience.

“It was learning how to pitch to complete lineups and that level of competition,” said Gross, who earned a Masters in Management Studies from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

“It was enjoying big moments and big games. Now I am playing in pro ball where the level of competition is even higher. I am crossing my fingers, hoping I can play in a handful more over the course of my career.”

In reflecting on the MLB draft, Gross was surprised that it was the Twins who gave him the chance to compete at the pro level.

“I had a feeling that I was going to get picked either late on day two in the 8th-to-10th round or early on day three, in the 10th-15th,” said Gross.

“I had some calls earlier on in day two and then radio silence for the rest of the day and I was OK, that is fine, I can go early on day three, that is no big deal. I got a call a half an hour before the Twins 10th round pick and they very quickly told me. hey we are going to take you next round, be ready. I was excited but it was also where the hell did this come from.”

After spending a few days at the Twins complex in Fort Myers, Fla., Gross was assigned to play for Elizabethton (Tenn.), the organization’s rookie-level farm team in the Appalachian League. He made his pro debut on June 20 against the Bluefield Blue Jays, giving up three runs and seven hits in four innings with two strikeouts.

“I got a little unlucky but that is how baseball goes,” said Gross. “I got some soft contacts; the stat line didn’t represent how I feel I pitched.”

As Gross settles in at Elizabethton, he is primed to stay in baseball for the long haul.

“What I am very quickly finding out is that you just have to focus on one outing, one pitch at a time and let the organization take care of what happens next,” said Gross, who was 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 20 innings in his first four appearances. “I just have to get used to throwing 100 plus innings a year and hopefully eventually 200 plus innings in a few years.”

After what Gross achieved this year, it would be foolish to bet against him.