By Charles Guthrie
“Pitching wins championships,” the saying goes, and the Broncs have the staff capable of making a championship run.
With the MAAC season just underway, Rider features a staff of upperclassmen with various pitching styles.
Junior Jimmer Kennedy and redshirt junior Derek Caldwell are the hard throwers, senior Will O’Connor is the crafty lefty and junior Mike Petrowski is a mixture of both.
“I think [the staff] is one of our strong points,” Head Coach Barry Davis said.
Kennedy was tied for the team lead in starts with 12 last year, striking out eight or more in four of those games. In conference play, he won four games and posted an earned run average (ERA) just under four.
According to Assistant Coach Jim Carone, who also serves as the pitching coach, the former All-League and All-County MVP from Holy Ghost Prep worked on his other pitches to make himself a more well-rounded hurler this season.
“He can get it up there to 87-91 MPH, but he has a much improved slider and change-up that’s going to help him out tremendously,” Carone said. “The one thing he lacked last year was his secondary pitches.”
This season, he’s 2-1 with a 4.03 ERA. Outside of a game against Samford, Kennedy has allowed just five earned runs in 17.1 innings of work.
“Last season I pitched all right, but I had a lot to work on,” Kennedy said. “Over the summer and in the offseason I really worked hard on my off-speed pitches and I’ve gotten a long way with them so far.”
Caldwell is back with the team after sitting out two seasons and needing Tommy John Surgery.
As a freshman, he led the Broncs in innings pitched with 70 and two-thirds, and was second on the team with 42 strikeouts.
“Caldwell has the potential to be one of the better guys on our staff, if not the best,” Carone said. “He’s pretty much 100 percent. He just has to get comfortable out there in game situations and he’ll continue to improve throughout the season.”
After struggling in his first three starts, Caldwell appears to be hitting his stride, allowing one run in four and one-third innings against Wofford and following that up by giving up just two earned runs in five and two-thirds innings against Rutgers on Tuesday.
“He is starting to regain his form from freshman year,” O’Connor said. “He’s exciting to watch pitch. His fastball has a lot of movement and his changeup is his best pitch.
“He has a chance to be real good if his arm stays healthy.”
O’Connor is the polar opposite of Kennedy and Caldwell. The senior hurler out of Cinnaminson High School has an approach to pitching similiar to a Tom Glavine or Jamie Moyer, which features a low 80s fastball, slider and change-up.
“I keep people off balance between my fastball and change-up,” O’Connor said. “I’m most effective when my change-up is moving a lot.”
Coming off a sophomore year where he won seven games, O’Connor had four quality starts in MAAC play, and only surrendered four earned runs or more in eight conference games while not being 100 percent.
“Willy is a tough kid,” Carone said. “He pitched all of last year with a torn labrum. He’s out there for the team, not himself.
“He kept us in every game last year. He’s not going to overpower you, but he’s just a bulldog.”
The 2006 Second Team All New Jersey honoree hasn’t been able to pitch yet this season because he’s rehabbing from offseason surgery.
Possibly the most impressive pitcher down the home stretch in 2007 was Petrowski. After allowing five runs in six innings on the road in late April to Siena, the 6-foot-4 righty closed out the regular season with four quality starts, throwing at least seven frames in each game.
He closed out his 2007 campaign with an eight inning, 12 strikeout gem against Fairfield, lowering his ERA to 4.03.
“He was our number one guy last year,” Carone said. “He kept us in every game except for one against Gonzaga.”
The recipient of the 2007 Bob Koehler Award for the team’s most valuable pitcher, Petrowski said it was a difference in his mental approach that led to his late season surge.
“I really bore down and challenged myself into thinking I was better than the hitter,” Petrowski said. “That mindset really helped me confidence wise.”
It is effectiveness and control of his three-pitch arsenal — consisting of a fastball, curve-ball and a “modified circle change-up”— that Carone said makes Petrowski such a talented pitcher.
“He’s as good as he is because he can throw three pitches for a strike whenever he wants on any count and I think that’s what makes him more successful than other guys,” Carone said.
Before getting tagged by Manhattan over the weekend for eight runs, Petrowski was sporting a 2.37 ERA with a minuscule .95 WHIP.
These four veteran pitchers will be looked upon to anchor the rotation throughout the conference schedule and send the Broncs back to the MAAC Tournament after just missing out in 2007.
“We all have our own style of pitching and complement each other real well,” O’Connor said. “We all feed off of each other and we blend together nicely.”