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Pitcher's Perspective: Prep's Roberts vs. Lowell's Riley

5/29/2014

DANVERS, Mass. -– The first round of the inaugural MIAA Division 1A “Super 8” Tournament kicked off Wednesday afternoon with No. 2 seed St. John’s Prep hosting one of the state’s hottest teams, the No. 7 seed Lowell Red Raiders, in a battle between two of the most efficient staff aces in the state.

Catholic Conference MVP Evan Roberts, a left-handed Davidson commit, opposed Franklin Pierce-bound Lowell righty Brock Riley, in what figures to be one of the best duels of the first round. Prep took Riley deep for three home runs for all of its scoring, in what was an otherwise efficient day on the hill. Still, Prep came away with a 4-0 victory to hand the Raiders just their second loss in their last 15 games.

Taking a closer look at each pitcher’s day:

Low Profile: If there’s one thing you learn quickly at Prep’s cracker box of a park, one of the smallest among the state’s traditional baseball powers, is that you keep your pitches low in the zone -– or you pay the price. As a crafty lefty who pinpoints balls to all quadrants of the strike zone, Roberts has learned to tow that line of pitching to contact without getting blown up.

His pitching line, with just a pair of K’s and walks, is reflective of that. He also induced twice as many groundouts (14) as he did flyouts (7).

One of his most impressive innings was the fifth, when three straight times he led off with a first-pitch four-seamer low in the zone for a ball. Each time, he came right back on the second pitch with a four-seamer that the batter got too far underneath, for an easy pop-up to Nick Latham in right field.

Roberts said those first-pitch balls weren’t deliberate –- “I’m always trying to throw strikes. I’m not going to throw a ball unless I need to,” he said.

Working the Zone: With a fastball in the low 80’s, Roberts is known for his velocity separation and the manner in which he uses it to keep hitters off-balance. Today, though, he primarily stuck with four-seam and two-seam fastball action, with the occasional curveball and changeup thrown in.

“What I’m accustomed to in our league is most guys want to live on the outside part of the plate. He was moving his fastball in and out, and spotting it on both sides,” Lowell head coach Danny Graham said. “That alone was giving us a bit of trouble, in terms of generating some offense, getting some base hits.”

The key to establishing that is getting ahead in the strike zone, and Roberts likes to do with pitches either up and away or down and in. But even when he wasn’t placing a first-pitch strike to either edge, his balls were typically low in the zone. If he had to miss, you figure, he wasn’t going to give them a piece of meat.

“That’s how I’ve pitched my entire life,” Roberts said. “I knew if I came out and threw first pitch strikes and keep it low, because a lot of hitters don’t have power when you go low in the strike zone, I’d have some success today.”

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Kick and Drive: Riley tends to make his compact frame big on the mound, starting off with a high, Dontrelle Willis-like kick and following through with a bit of a herky-jerky motion. Getting used to his delivery –- something he says he’s been doing “my whole life” –- takes patience.

“I’ve always thrown very weird, everybody always makes fun of me about it my whole life. But it works,” Riley laughed.

One of the state’s best righthanders this spring, St. John’s of Shrewsbury junior Shane Combs, has a similar high-kick motion. In a start against Prep on May 13, the Notre Dame-bound Combs fanned 11 batters and allowed just three hits in a 2-0 loss.

Prep outfielder Keith Leavitt, a Penn State commit, was one of the first to get comfortable with Riley’s delivery. And boy did he come around, taking him deep twice -– one to each side of the field –- to account for three-fourths of the day’s scoring.

“It’s a little difficult,” Leavitt said of the high-kick delivery. “Shane Combs, he’s as good as you’re going to see at this level. It’s a little difficult to pick up at first, but after the first time around you kinda get the idea. You get used to the windup. At that point, it’s just seeing the baseball and reacting and hitting it.”

Bit of Chicanery: Riley’s mistakes essentially came down to less than a half-dozen pitches. His first mistake was a 1-0 fastball away from the lefty-hitting Leavitt, a ball that he took opposite field for a two-run shot to open up the scoring in the bottom of the second inning for Prep. Riley gave up another homer in the same stanza, this one a solo shot to Ted McNamara, then paid once more in the sixth when Leavitt pulled a 1-1 changeup off the end of his bat into right for the 4-0 advantage.

Other than that, this was a pretty efficient day for Riley, who threw 73 percent of his pitches for strikes and fanned six batters. Moreso than his counterpart Roberts, Riley went to his off-speed stuff, his slider perhaps working best for him on the day, in an attempt to keep the Prep hitters away from contact.

“I was trying to get that slider to go down and out all game, so people would chase at it,” Riley said. “When I got it to go in the correct location, it was working perfectly fine, people were swinging and missing, I was getting strikeouts. But whenever there was too much white, and I left it over the plate, they took advantage.”