THE KING OF THE KNUCKLE
By BRANDON HURLEY
One pitch often defines greatness.
Mariano Rivera’s cutter closed the door on several hundred games. Randy Johnson’s fastball frightened even the best hitters in the league while Greg Maddux’s change up left batters frustratingly confused.
The legends had IT. They massaged their go-to pitch, tweaked it and conquered it, making the specialty their own. They earned respect and control by dominating opposing hitters. When each Hall of Famer took the mound, batters nervously dug in, unable to compress their natural instincts to flail at anything close to the strike zone.
Greene County’s Austin Delp, while certainly on a much lesser scale, has suddenly hurled his himself among the great single-pitch legends, locally. He’s produced his own Hall of Fame-like stretch, having struck out 44 batters in his last four starts. He’s fanned more than 10 batters in four of his eight starts, setting down at least seven hitters in six of those starts.
The secret to the senior’s monster second half is simply in the grip and his confidence level. And a quick little pre-game beverage for extra motivation.
Delp’s newly installed knuckle-curveball, with it’s vicious, late breaking, right to left sideways movement, has baffled opposing hitters over the last month. The pitch releases low out of Delp’s hand, heads toward a right-handed hitter’s back, then dances its way into the strike zone. It’s a rather unpredictable pitch that has left batters confused, without much of a chance of making contact.
Delp has been on such a magnificent tear lately, so much so that he fanned a career-best 15 of a possible 18 batters in a win over Nevada on June 24. He’s struck out 80 hitters in all (as of July 18) in just 51 and two-thirds innings of work, which ties him for seventh in all of Class 3A. Delp has amassed his staggering strikeout total with the second least innings pitched among athletes in the top seven, which has allowed him to achieve a team-best 2.05 ERA. The 80 strikeouts are already a career high, which has boosted the ace’s total to 182 career strikeouts across his four year stint in the Greene County red and black.
His dominance has captivated Delp’s teammates as well.
They are left in awe nearly as much as the batters he continues to mow down with remarkable consistency.
“It’s nasty,” Greene County catcher Tyler Teeples said, giddy to discuss battering mate’s control. “You can’t even guess where it’s going to be. It never ends up in the same spot. It’s always dropping at a different distance or it’s sliding so far out. It’s crazy.”
Even nuttier, Delp abandoned his knuckle-curve after his freshman year, only to bring it back more than three years later. He felt as if he was tipping the deadly pitch to opposing hitters, which left him a bit skeptical to continue with it. So Delp dumped the knuckle until he began tossing around new ideas mid-way through his senior year. He sought a leg up on the competition, to put them back on their heels, giving him a reliable strike out pitch in addition to his steady fastball. He dug into the archives and came up with the deceiving breaking ball.
The knuckle-curve grip is the most captivating and important aspect of Delp’s dominance. His Index finger knuckle is pressed firmly against the ball, with his ring finger tightly gripping the nearest lace. A normal, over-the-shoulder motion can’t produce enough momentum to get it to move, so Delp resorts to firing the pitch from a side-arm angle.
Even though he knows the knuckler is released at a completely different arm angle than his fastball, giving away some of its unpredictability, Delp weighed the pros and cons, and it’s certainly paid off.
“If they can’t hit it, I’m going to keep throwing it,” he said. “It worked for me a lot better than my actual curveball. It’s more like a slider, and it has a lot more movement.”
If the righty can inflict so much damage with a pitch he folded into his repertoire mid-season, imagine would he could do with a little bit of extra practice.
Nevertheless, he’s cherished the punishing dominance he’s put forth this summer. The hurler has witnessed a number of batters completely discombobulated by his sidewinding pitch, at times turning their backs, bracing for it to hit them, before watching the ball safely works its way into the strike zone.
Delp’s confidence has sky-rocketed over the last few weeks as he’s continued to silence batters one after the other. He has almost as much faith in the funky breaking pitch as he does in his trusty fastball, the easiest - and usually most dominant - option at a hurler’s disposal.
That fastball helped him in his near record-setting outing against Nevada. And so did his pregame routine of downing an energy drink. It gives Delp a little extra boost when he takes the mound. His 15 strikeouts – in just six innings of work – are the fourth best single game total this summer, in all of Iowa. The top mark is 18 strikeouts, achieved by four different pitchers. Twelve other pitchers have struck out 15 guys. Delp was in a groove from the start, zeroing in on the batters’ tendency to hop on his fastball. The senior adjusted and threw junk the rest of the way.
“It’s a really good feeling,” Delp said. “I know where to place it and I can move it wherever I want.”
Delp boasts a relatively calm demeanor on the mound - never exerting much emotion, something that’s carried with him throughout his career in various sports, including football, tack and soccer. It’s something he’s picked up after nearly four full years as a varsity starter. He’s never had an ERA over 3.53, and only once produced an ERA above 3.00. He’s twice (including this year) tallied a sub-2.00 ERA.
Massaging a relationship with a n ew catcher his final year on the mound hasn’t fazed Delp either. He’s developed quite the trust with Teeples during his first full season behind the plate. The junior backstop has nearly complete control on what pitches to call and where Delp should place the ball. It’s a brotherhood that started to take shape in the offseason.
“We’ve gotten really close,” Delp said. “Working in the offseason helped me a lot, too. We got to know each other more. He knows my pitches and what I like to do with them.”
Teeples enjoys one of the more unique perspectives when Delp is on a roll. He gets an up close and personal gaze into the bewilderment of opposing players. The catcher lights up when he gets a chance to gush over Delp’s wicked breaking ball.
“It makes them so frustrated,” Teeples said. “They’ll cuss at it. They’ll get mad and throw helmets. It’s ridiculous.”
Heck, even Teeples has trouble at times predicting where Delp’s pitches will end up. The catcher often has to guess where it’s going, not necessarily using his glove to catch the ball, but his entire body.
“I usually just jump in front of it and let it him me and the chest,” he said.
That legendary, 15 strikeout performance? Yep, Teeples was the man behind the plate for every single one of those mind-bending pitches.
“It was so much fun to watch how frustrated they were, especially because we were playing so well,” Teeples said. “It (puts) everybody in a better mood. And when we are in a better mood, everyone plays as a team. It’s pretty great.”
Delp has done his part at the plate in addition to his pitching prowess, increasing his career-high single season hit total to 30, which bumped his average to .405, which is also a career best Delp has collected 87 career hits, and is enjoying his best season at the dish. It’s mostly due to an improved patience, he said.
“The biggest thing for me is just relaxing,” Delp said of his team-leading average. “I’m not thinking too much. The couple years before this, I thought too much or I got down on myself when I wasn’t doing well. This year, I’m trying to have fun and stay relaxed.”
That rejuvenated mindset has powered him on the mound time and time again. He trusts himself to throw his legendary breaking ball in tight spots, and has confidence in his abilities as a whole. Delp has blocked out most of the noise, giving each start his all. He’s in complete control each time he takes the mound.
The rest of the Greene County pitching staff has come around nicely, as well. Brent Riley went the distance Monday night, though he didn’t pick up a win, tossing six innings of three hit ball, striking out eight while allowing three runs, all of which came in the fourth inning against Pocahontas, a 3-2 loss. The Indians are one of the top teams in the state, compiling a magnificent 20-4 overall record (at the time), aided by a seven game winning streak.
In a sport where one dominant pitching performance can flip an entire game, Delp and his Ram teammates confidently await postseason play, even with a 9-20 record and No. 7 Gilbert waiting in the first round.
“We need to keep working together,” he said. “At the same time, we need to play Ram baseball. Our main concern is hitting collectively as a team.”
Greene County opens Class 3A, district four action July 19 in Gilbert in the second game of a postseason doubleheader at 7 p.m.