GORHAM – Ryan Yates checked his nerves Thursday and found them relaxed. He checked the right shoulder and right elbow that had troubled him so many times in the past. Both body parts were good to go.
He didn’t have to check his heart.
After five long years of waiting to pitch in a game that mattered to his University of Southern Maine teammates, Yates was masterful. He didn’t allow Keene State to score in the seven-plus innings he worked. He gave up three hits. USM won, 4-0. The 6-foot, 200-pound right-hander who lost a full season to injury was so in control he played like he had done all this so many times before.
Thursday was Day 2 of the double-elimination Little East Conference tournament with the winner getting the automatic invite to the NCAA Division III playoffs next week. USM won its first game Wednesday. It didn’t want to lose and drop into the losers’ bracket.
Coach Ed Flaherty gave the ball to the fifth-year senior who was pegged early in the season to pitch the meaningless innings of mop-up duty. After three years of nagging injury and rehab from surgery, there were no expectations.
“With some kids you’re hopeful,” said Flaherty. “You say it could still happen. I didn’t say that about Ryan. I knew about his injuries. He wasn’t going to be the pitcher we thought. He made it happen. In my 28 years of coaching, I’ve never had a kid come back like this.”
Ryan Yates is the type of story you’d find decades ago in middle-school libraries, written by an old-school novelist like John Tunis, whose “The Kid from Tomkinsville” and “Highpockets” are classics.
“Ryan is the nicest kid I’ve ever had,” said Flaherty. “So nice, I was worried he’d be intimidated by some of the tough kids on the team. He’s not. He’s Yatesy to the guys. I haven’t even heard him swear. Maybe they have.”
For three seasons Yates didn’t have a real impact on the field. This year Flaherty used him in spots on the annual spring trip to Florida. An inning here or there that grew to two innings, three innings and more. Before USM came north, Flaherty gave Yates a start against Wisconsin-Whitewater, a good Division III team, and had someone ready in the bullpen. After seven innings Yates was still getting outs.
Flaherty’s eyes opened wider. USM’s ace is junior Logan Carman (10-0), and Flaherty was looking for another upperclassman to balance freshmen starters Tyler Leavitt and Shyler Scates.
“Still, one performance doesn’t do it,” said Flaherty. “I wasn’t sure (Yates) was the guy. But he kept showing me he could do it. He solidified our rotation.”
Yates is not a strikeout pitcher. He throws good breaking pitches, and gets hitters off balance with a good change-up and surprises them with his fastball. Thursday’s win was his sixth of 2013 as a starter. He’s got a 3.32 earned-run average, much better than last season’s 9.11.
Keene State has several good hitters but not enough of them. Yates pounded the strike zone with his pitches. He wasn’t rattled when a couple of errors were made behind him. His calmness was evident. Prayer, he said afterward, helps him approach his starts.
Faith helped his confidence. His work ethic helped his arm regain its strength.
He tried to brush aside his success when I found him after Thursday’s game. His catcher gets credit, he said. He’s been throwing to Matt Verrier since they were teammates at Oxford Hills High in South Paris.
Yates had to point out that he was lifted after one inning in a recent start. “My arm felt too good. I threw too hard and that messed up my mechanics.”
Pitching coaches Kevin Smith and Ed Boyce quickly got him back on track. Yates is the 23-year-old who listens well.
He grew up in the western Maine town of Norway, was home-schooled and played sports at Oxford Hills. He was the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference player of the year after his senior season. He played shortstop when he wasn’t pitching and believed that’s where he fit into Flaherty’s lineup.
“No, I always saw him as a pitcher,” said Flaherty, a small grin playing on his mouth. He just didn’t see Yates coming.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: