It may have been the shellacking The Citadel put on Winthrop back in March, but whatever the reason, the Eagles' pitching staff has turned things around over the last month. The group lowered its staff earned run average to 2.81 from a high of 7.23 following the 34-8 loss to the Bulldogs.
If the current pitching performances continue, Winthrop can finish the season with its lowest team ERA since 2001 (3.26). This pitching staff could also become the first Winthrop group to have a sub-3.00 ERA in 34 years since the 1983 team posted a 2.67 mark.
The Eagles started 7-9 overall and only 1-6 on the road, but they’ve won 14 of their last 21 games and are 10-4 on the road. For the most part, pitching is the main reason.
“Not a lot has changed,” said Winthrop coach Tom Riginos. “The Citadel game was certainly a wakeup call. It was the Bulldogs' night and not ours. The pitchers are now more focused and they know their roles.”
Nate Pawelczyk was moved out of the bullpen and into the starting rotation. Dalton Whitaker was made the closer, while Thad Harris, Riley Arnone, Zach Peek and Daniel Wilcutt continue to be used in any and all situations.
Pitching coach Clint Chrysler said the pitchers’ lack of trust in themselves was a key factor in the slow start.
“They did not trust themselves, we were very inconsistent in everything,” he said. “We got embarrassed in Charleston. They realize that and they have been pitching better especially in the bullpen.”
“One of the biggest things that has been helping our pitchers,” said Riginos, “is they are controlling the count and have been keeping the leadoff hitters off base.”
The Eagles have settled into a set rotation of weekend starters that include senior Reece Green, Pawelczyk, and freshman Colton Rendon.
Green's ERA is 3.06 with a 4-3 record. In February he went 1-0, with a 2.92 ERA, in March he was 2-2, with a 2.52 ERA, and so far in April he is 1-1, with a 4.85 ERA. After two rocky starts in the month of April he is now throwing like he was in February and March.
What makes him different from the other two weekend starters?
“There are obviously guys on the staff with better stuff than me so I guess it comes down to the mental aspect of it,” said Green, “Being able to deal with adversity and go out and do what I do best and that is pitch to my abilities. More often than not we will be successful.”
Pawelczyk started the season in the bullpen and was coming in as a closer and a long relief pitcher. He’s 5-1 with a 2.12 ERA. Pawelczyk says that being moved from the bullpen into a starting role has changed routine in terms of throwing weekly and preparing for outings.
“Besides that not as much physically has changed as people may think,” he said. “The mental side of the game is something that I think has been a major factor for my success this year. Focusing on each individual hitter and taking it one pitch at a time is something I have focused on, as well as making sure that I control each inning to make sure I do not let the game speed up on me and that innings do not spiral out of control.”
The bullpen has also played a role in the team's pitching resurgence.
Arnone is an experienced left-hander that comes on when Riginos wants a lefty-lefty matchup. Arnone pitched very well in February, including one start against No. 5 North Carolina where he went four innings, and did not give up a run. Arnone is 2-2 with a 3.25 ERA with one save in 16 appearances and two starts.
Whitaker transferred to Winthrop this season and was being used as a middle relief guy. With the loss of redshirt junior Zach Cook, the team's expected closer, for the season, Whitaker became the closer in March and has six saves since.
The one key member of the pitching staff who has not been a factor for this year and most of last season is redshirt junior southpaw Matt Crohan who is still working to return this season from torn labrum surgery. He was voted the Big South Preseason Big South Pitcher of the Year in 2016 and again this year, so his loss has been huge.
“Matt is working really hard to come back,” said Riginos. “We are hoping he throws to live batters during exam week, which starts on Wednesday, it will be up to him with his arm.”
Even without Crohan, this group of pitchers has come together to put the Eagles in position to make a run for the Big South Conference championship and the program's first NCAA appearance since 2006.