APPLETON, Wis. – Tyler Leavitt lost his appetite Monday morning. He didn’t lose his nerve.
He gave up a sharp single to Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s leadoff hitter. It was Leavitt’s second pitch of the game. Quickly, Coach Ed Flaherty called for a timeout and walked slowly to the mound.
“Just pitch like you’re playing out in the backyard,” said Flaherty. “Trust your stuff.”
Leavitt did, which is why the University of Southern Maine plays Ithaca (N.Y.) College Tuesday in the first game of the last day of the NCAA Division III baseball championship. The challenge of winning two games on Tuesday for the title is daunting.
No more daunting than Leavitt facing one of the top small college baseball teams in the country. USM had to win Monday to play Tuesday. No wonder his stomach balked at the idea of food hours before the game.
“I had to force something down,” said Leavitt after his win. Six hours later he must have been hungry.
Leavitt is one of two kid pitchers on the USM roster. Shyler Scates is the other. Two freshmen who were trying to pay attention at the rehearsals for their high school graduations 12 months ago.
Tyler and Shyler. Brothers in arms so to speak. Scates started the first game of the tournament and worked five effective innings after hitting the very first batter he faced.
Which brought Flaherty to the mound that day with the same message. You’re in your backyard, kid. You’re in familiar surroundings. Just pitch.
Sure, coach. Easy for you to say.
In fact, Flaherty’s players do listen. They’ve learned to trust what he tells them.
By extension, they’ve learned to trust Matt Verrier behind the plate. The junior catcher calls all the pitches.
You won’t see Verrier looking over to the dugout before every pitch to see if he should signal the pitcher for a fastball, curve, or something else. The pitching staff has a comfort zone with their catcher.
He makes the catcher’s mitt look bigger, said Leavitt after his complete-game, four-hit victory. Verrier frames the pitches well.
Is the big catcher a cheerleader or counselor? Does he talk to bring out the best in his pitchers, especially the freshmen?
No, said Leavitt, with a grin. The big man with the blacksmith’s arms isn’t a talker. It’s Verrier’s presence that calms.
Tyler and Shyler. Lefty and righty. Both lanky kids with easy smiles. They had no idea when they arrived on campus they’d share the pressure of pitching in postseason games so soon. But Chris Bernard, the senior veteran, hurt his shoulder very early. He can hit, but still can’t throw.
After Logan Carman and Ryan Yates there really was no one else to start. Flaherty brought his two freshmen along slowly, not letting them finish most games. Hey, USM had Andrew Richards in the bullpen.
“I had to take care of Tyler and Shyler,” said Flaherty. “I had to build up their confidence.”
Leavitt did make mistakes Monday. He had a rough patch or two but always recovered. After shortstop Dan Douglas singled on the second pitch of the game, he was picked off by Leavitt.
Casey Barnes tripled to left-center with one out in the second. Leavitt got the next batter on a flyout to shallow center and the third out on a grounder to second.
Somehow, Leavitt walked Clint Rose, the No. 9 hitter, three times. Rose never got past second. From the fifth inning on, Leavitt allowed only three baserunners and one was erased in a double play.
He struck out only two. It was a bravura performance, saving the bullpen and Richards in particular. Richards may have a rubber arm but he is human. He’s worked in the previous three games, including a five-inning stint in relief of Scates, getting the win.
Scates will probably start Tuesday’s game against Ithaca. He was ready after he pitched the first five innings of Friday’s game. It was like he was pitching in his backyard.
Leavitt will eat a big breakfast Tuesday. He found his backyard, too.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at [email protected]