ROCK HILL, SC – It may have been the shellacking The Citadel put on Winthrop back in March, but whatever the reason, the Eagles’ pitching staff has turned things around over the last six weeks to lower its staff earned run average to 4.79 after jumping to a high of 7.23 after the 34-8 loss to the Bulldogs on March 14. Over the last 24 games the team ERA has been a sparkling 2.81.
During the last 24 games, Winthrop has won 16 games. The pitchers have tossed four shutouts and have held the opponents to three or fewer runs in seven other games. Only three Eagle teams–the first three in Winthrop history– have finished an entire season with a team ERA under 3.00 and that will not happen this year after the rocky start to the season, but the last six weeks have been impressive as the Eagles inch closer to the Big South Conference Championship in four weeks.
When head coach Tom Riginos says, “Not a lot has changed. The Citadel game was certainly a wakeup call. It was the Bulldogs’ night and not ours. The pitchers are now more focused and they know their roles,” said Riginos.
“Moving (Nate) Pawelczyk out of the pen and into a starting role, and making (Dalton) Whitaker our closer has helped us as a team. Thad Harris, Riley Arnone, and Zach Peek can be used anywhere and Daniel Willcutt has really improved over the last two weeks and can be thrown in anywhere. One of the biggest things that has been helping our pitchers is they are controlling the count and have been keeping the leadoff hitters off base.”
Pitching Coach Clint Chrysler said a lack of trust in themselves was a key factor in the slow start this season. “They did not trust themselves, we were very inconsistent in everything. We got embarrassed in Charleston. They realize that and they have been pitching better especially in the bullpen.”
The Eagles have settled into a set rotation of weekend starters that include senior Reece Green, sophomore Nate Pawelczyk, and freshman Colton Rendon.
Green’s ERA is 3.06 with a 4-3 record so far this season. In February he went 1-0, with a 2.92 ERA, in March he was 2-2, with a 2.52 ERA, and so far in April he is 1-1, with a 4.85 ERA. After two rocky starts in the month of April he is now throwing like he was in February and March.
What makes him different that the other two weekend starters? “There are obviously guys on the staff with better stuff than me so I guess it comes down to the mental aspect of it,” said Green, “Being able to deal with adversity and go out and do what I do best and that is pitch to my abilities. More often than not we will be successful.”
Pawelczyk’s ERA on the season is 2.12, with a 5-1 record. Pawelczyk started the season in the bullpen and was coming in as a closer and a long relief pitcher. In February, he was 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA with one save in 6.1 innings pitched. After the first week of March, Pawelczyk was moved to the starting rotation. In March, he had a 2-1 record with a 2.89 ERA in three starts, and so far in April he’s gone 2-0, with a 1.66 ERA in three starts.
Pawelczyk says that being moved from the bullpen into a starting role has changed routine in terms of throwing weekly and preparing for outings. “Besides that not as much physically has changed as people may think,” he said. “The mental side of the game is something that I think has been a major factor for my success this year. Focusing on each individual hitter and taking it one pitch at a time is something I have focused on, as well as making sure that I control each inning to make sure I do not let the game speed up on me and that innings do not spiral out of control.”
Rendon entered the season with high expectations. Baseball America picked him to win Freshman of The Year. He is the Sunday starter. When he came in to the program, he saw himself pitching on Sunday or weekday games as a reliever. He started the month of February not as well as he wanted and was 0-1, with a 9.64 ERA in two starts. After that month, he started pitching the way he was expected in March. He compiled a 3-1 record and a 3.54 ERA in three starts while also seeing some relief duty. So far in April, he is 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA in three starts.
Rendon credits pregame and in-game preparation for his success thus far. “To me it is all about the routine to get prepared before and during the game. With that same routine it creates comfort for me and I do my best to succeed.”
The bullpen has also played a role in the team’s pitching resurgence. Junior Riley Arnone is an experience left-hander that comes on whenRiginos is wanting a lefty-lefty matchup. Arnone pitched very well in February when he went 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA. That included one start against No. 5 North Carolina where he went four innings, and did not give up a run. Arnone is 2-2 with a 3.25 ERA with one save in 16 appearances and two starts.
Other guys in the bullpen that have stepped up include junior Daniel Willcutt, freshman Zach Peek and sophomore Dalton Whitaker.
Willcutt has come on in April to record a 2-0 record with a 1.17 ERA in 15.1 innings of relief work.
Peek came into the season as the choice of Perfect Game to win Freshman of The Year in the Big South. He has settled in as a mid-week starter as he has made four starts. He is 2-0 overall with a 5.29 ERA in 13 appearances, but during April he is 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA in eight innings.
Whitaker transferred the Winthrop this season and was being used as a middle relief guy, but did not get off to a good start in that role. With the loss of red-shirt junior Zach Cook, the team’s expected closer, out for the season, Whitaker became the closer in March and has six saves on the season so far.
The one key member of the pitching staff who has not been a factor for this year and most of last season is redshirt junior southpaw Matt Crohan who is still working to return this season from torn labrum surgery. He was voted the Big South Preseason Big South Pitcher of the Year in 2016 and again this year, so his loss has been huge.
“Matt is working really hard to come back,” said Riginos. “We are hoping he throws to live batters during exam week, which starts on Wednesday, it will be up to him with his arm.”
Even without Crohan, this group of pitchers has come together to put the Eagles in position to make a run for the Big South Conference championship and the program’s first NCAA appearance since 2006.
Story Credit: Winthrop