PEABODY, Mass. -– Mark Bettencourt can’t offer enough praise about his ace righthander Pat Ruotolo as he watches the kid circle the track at Peabody High, from his mild-mannered demeanor to his clean mechanics and aggressive work ethic.
A half-hour into this evening practice session, the Tanners head coach finally meets a question he can’t retort. The run this kid’s on –- three no-hitters in his last four starts, just six hits allowed in his last five, and four runs allowed all year – what does it compare to over his experiences in baseball?
And for once the eighth-year coach and Peabody alum –- whose path includes a standout career at Boston College, a year in the Cape Cod League, and eight years of coaching in the college ranks -– is stumped. To him, “this is incomprehendible,” he concedes.
He turns to assistant coach Pete Soteropoulos -– himself a former UConn standout and St. Louis Cardinals draft pick –- who reminds Bettencourt that among all the accolades of Jeff Allison, a first-round draft pick in 2003 and Peabody’s greatest high school export, the former Baseball America Player of the Year only tossed two no-no’s his senior year.
Soteropoulos, too, can think of no precedent. So Bettencourt turns to another assistant –- his father, Manny –- and draws back to another North Shore legend and first-round draft pick.
“Hey, did [Jeff] Juden ever pitch like this?” he shouts, recalling the former Salem High ace and 12th overall pick by the Astros in 1989.
It all started on April 26, with a trip to Marblehead, when he struck out 13, walked three and allowed no hits in a 3-0 win over the host Magicians, his first no-no of the season. From there, it only steamrolled.
Then on May 7 at Swampscott, a 7-0 decision over the Big Blue, he fanned 11, walked one, and completed his second no-hitter in three starts. Nine days later, at Salem, Ruotolo fanned a season-high 15 batters and walked two while allowing no hits.
Ever since, the camera crews and media requests have been rolling in, from both the local news stations and national outlets. Some of it is unnerving the humbled, reserved star.
“It’s kinda crazy, all the publicity, it’s been kind of overwhelming,” Ruotolo says softly.
As for his own school hallways? “I kinda get dumped on a little for breaking up the no-hit streak”, he laughs, referring to his performance Monday in a 1-0 win over Lynn Classical (Ruotolo surrendered all three of his hits in the first inning, but struck out 14).
And for senior Gennaro Ciulla, Ruotolo’s catcher since little league?
“I love it,” he smiles, cracking, “Pat just knows what he’s doing, doing his thing. And whenever the cameras are around, I’m in the shot. So, you know, keep throwing no-hitters, right?”
Ruotolo will never be confused for a show-boater, and the sudden fortune hasn’t changed him a bit. Still mild-mannered, still speaking at a low volume, he continues to keep to himself.
“Pat respects what he’s doing, he understands it’s pretty rare to do what he’s doing, and he stays humble about it,” Bettencourt said. “A lot of times you worry about a kid’s hat size getting too big if he starts doing well. But I’ve never seen that in Pat, never in conversations with him.”
On the mound, Ruotolo carries a more insular demeanor. That is to say, he’s got a pretty mean poker face when he stares down Ciulla from the plate.
“When he’s on the mound, he’s just focused in, he’s ready to go,” says Ciulla.
‘A prototypical pitcher’s body’
This much is known about Ruotolo’s ridiculous month from the mound. Five major league draft picks came straight out of Peabody High in a nine-year span from 1995 to 2004, one of the most dominant eras in the history of this storied program, and not one of them had three no-no’s in one season -- never mind one month.
And certainly, none of them looked quite like this. That is to say, at 5-foot-10 and a stocky 190 pounds, and armed with a fastball that touches the high-80’s, Ruotolo doesn’t quite fit the mold of today's prototype power pitcher.
Perhaps that’s why, despite the amazing feat, Bettencourt says the phone “hasn’t been ringing as much as you’d think” from the college coaches.
Yes, all the usual local suspects are showing interest -– UConn has inquired, as have UMass, Rhode Island, Boston College and Northeastern. But the truth of the matter is, Ruotolo’s size is going to turn off some coaches.
Even with the clean action in his delivery, even with the durability, and even with the efficiency of it all.
With a compact motion that keeps his elbows locked close to the body, Ruotolo uses superior leg strength -– built from his winter turns as a stay-at-home defenseman for the school’s ice hockey team -– to generate high velocity. Ruotolo couples that with a high arm slot that creates sharp downhill trajectory, which has yielded an improved 12-to-6 drop on his curveball.
Occasionally, he’ll drop to a three-quarters slot if hitters are catching on, to which Bettencourt cautiously concedes, “I’m not the one who taught him that, but whoever did, I understand the reasoning.”
Unafraid to pitch to contact, Ruotolo’s method has led to some pretty economical outings -– a far cry from his days as a freshman, where he might have been prone to racking up 90 pitches by the fourth inning.
In his first outing of the season, a 10-inning loss to St. John’s Prep, Ruotolo threw 133 pitches and rung up 10 strikeouts in a no-decision.
Ruotolo hasn’t touched 133 pitches again this season. In fact, his pitch counts have been pretty impressive during this scoreless streak. In his last start, he needed just 77 pitches for the 14-K, complete game effort. In the third no-hitter against Salem, he threw 88; the first, against Marblehead, needed just 91.
His two-hitter against Danvers on May 2 required just 87 pitches. Only once in the last month has he gone over the century mark – May 7’s no-no over Swampscott, which needed 103 pitches. He’ll have one more start this weekend, and will have at least one start to work with when the MIAA Division 1 North tournament commences next week.
Bettencourt knocks on wood as he explains how Ruotolo’s frame is built for the long haul. But once again, you can thank the overlap of leg workouts between hockey and baseball for his reliable lower body strength. Ruotolo boasts some big quadriceps and hamstrings to push off the mound with –- he says he has leg-pressed as much as 800 pounds –- and the amount of torso movement on slap shots has given him exceptional core strength.
“And that’s what they call a prototypical pitcher’s body,” Bettencourt said. “If you’re not talking about the tall, skinny, lanky guy, you’re talking about the heavy lower-body strength guy. And that’s where Pat fits in. He’s not 6-4, 6-5. His knuckles don’t drag on the ground. He’s more of a...I call him a ‘Clemens type’. You know, wide hips, big legs, and I think a lot of his velocity is generated through his lower-body torque.
“Obviously, he has a live arm –- you don’t throw as hard as he does if you don’t. And the fact that he works so hard on his mechanics, keeps things fluid, obviously is a major factor. And the way he’s able to create the arm speed necessary to throw as hard as he throws, but also to have the looseness to throw that nasty curveball that he throws and not hurt his arm, because his mechanics are very precise.”
With his sharp downhill action, Ruotolo is able to get some late life out of his 12-to-6 curve. And with clean mechanics that utilize the leg, the pain ends up in places other than the arms and shoulders.
“Generally, if he gets soreness, it’s in his back,” Bettencourt said. “And that’s usually a good indication that he’s using the bigger muscles to help decelerate his arm, and not using his elbow and his shoulder.
“When you’re talking about a pitcher, at the point of release, his hand speed’s gotta be…You know, if he’s throwing 87-88, his arm speed’s 88 when he’s releasing the ball, and he’s only got three or four feet before his arm’s got to come to a stop on his follow through, so he’s got to use more muscles than just his elbow and shoulder, or he’s going to hurt himself. When he says his back is tight, for me that’s a good indication.”
Don’t Even Go There
Someone was bound to try and make the comparison. Because what Patrick Ewing is the Cambridge basketball, and what the Fluties are to Natick football, you can never talk Peabody baseball without recalling Jeff Allison, the superstar with 98 mile per hour heat, seemingly destined for a big league career before off-field issues, including substance abuse, derailed the path.
So let’s get it out of the way before this builds steam. Allison’s school single-season record of 142 strikeouts is within reach for Ruotolo if the Tanners make a run in the MIAA playoffs. So, too, is the school’s career strikeouts record (Ruotolo now has 208 strikeouts since the start of his sophomore season alone, and is close to 280 for his career).
But there’s a slim chance Ruotolo will go 16th overall to the Florida Marlins, and even slimmer that he’ll ever be named Baseball America’s National High School Player of the Year.
Allison’s demeanor on the mound was the stuff of legend. Before Lowell’s prized ace Matt Tulley took the field last Friday night against BC High, his coach Danny Graham encouraged him to exert some of the same grittiness he saw when watching Allison a decade ago.
Bettencourt puts it more bluntly than we can -– “Jeff, you came away from him saying to yourself, ‘Boy, he could probably handle himself in a fight’,” he chuckled. That’s not the style of the mild-mannered Ruotolo.
But as far as pitching goes...
“Pat doesn’t throw as hard as Jeff did,” Bettencourt continued. “Jeff was throwing 95, 96, and that was a gift. But the fact that Pat throws 87-88 as a junior, I don’t know what Jeff was throwing his junior year...The jury’s still out on what the future holds for him, but with the work ethic he has and the time that he’s put in, the door is open as far as what he could do over the next year.”
Is This It?
Where does it go from here? Or maybe the better question is, when will it end?
In Monday’s win over Classical, Ruotolo gave up a leadoff base hit to start the evening, only to allow two hits the rest of the way and shut out the Rams. Bettencourt called it “a huge step for Pat”, compared to where he’s been in the past.
“You want to see what happens now, if he does start to get hit around a little bit, when they square the ball up consistently,” Bettencourt said. “I know in the past that’s happened, and I won’t say he’s crumbled, but there has been a significant difference in the way he pitches. And that’s the biggest thing I think college coaches want to see. It’s great to see him when he’s doing well, what about when he’s not doing so well?”
Bettencourt is naturally concerned about his reaction when this all stops. But it’s testament to his work ethic, too, that the kid doesn’t appear rattled much when opposing bats get hot early. When given an off-day, Ruotolo isn’t resting on his laurels.
Perhaps his best quality of all, then, is his short memory.
“For Pat, I remember after Salem game walking over shaking his hand, walking off Salem State’s field, and he goes ‘I can’t wait for Classical’,” Bettencourt said. “He’s already turned the page, he’s already looking for that next start, next challenge. And I think that work ethic that he puts in, goes hand in hand with that type of an attitude.”
So maybe this run comes to an end this weekend. Or maybe it continues into next week and beyond.
Either way, he’s locked in, with nowhere to go but forward.