April 4, 2010 12:10:00 AM
It''s only natural for a pitcher to want to keep his arm warm.
But superstition rules baseball, so it shouldn''t be surprising a pitcher would accept having a cold arm in return for a little success.
Based on his performance the past two nights, Blake Roberts appears ready to let his right arm withstand the elements for the rest of the season.
One night after lasting 2 1/3 innings in his first start of the season, Roberts regrouped and threw four innings of solid relief Saturday night to help the New Hope High School baseball team beat Gordo (Ala.) 14-5 at Trojan Field.
The difference could have been Roberts pitched Saturday without a black neoprene sleeve on his right arm. Earlier in the season against West Point, he had three strikeouts in a relief effort without the sleeve.
On Friday against West Point, Roberts wore the sleeve, and even though his arm was nice and toasty, he didn''t make it out of the third inning and took a no-decision.
"It''s superstition for not wearing it," said Roberts, who was wearing the sleeve after the game. "I pitched with it on and didn''t do so hot and came in tonight without it on."
The victory, coupled with a 6-1 win against Houston earlier in the day, pushed New Hope to 14-4 and set the stage for its Class 5A, Division 2, District 1 game at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Saltillo. Both teams are 3-1 in the district.
Gabe Franks, Dusty Dyson, Davis Lee, and Brent Younger (two) had RBIs to help the Trojans pull away after the game was tied 4-4 in the second inning.
While his teammates pounded out nine hits, Roberts silenced Gordo in the middle innings. In relief of starter Frank Richardson Jr., Roberts allowed a double to Tanner Skelton that scored Kainen Sullivan to tie the game at 4. He then retired Zach Britt on a groundout to strand the go-ahead run on third base.
From there, Roberts was in command. He surrendered only two more hits, walked three, and struck out six before giving way to Dillon Hawkins with two outs in the sixth.
"I am really proud of him," New Hope coach Lee Boyd said. "It is no secret. He has kind of had a tough start to his senior year. He has tried to rehab his way back, and the way I looked at it, he had a bad outing last night and run him back out there tonight. I know he can pitch, and he knows he can pitch. He has proven that the last two years."
Roberts started Friday''s district game against West Point and allowed four hits and three runs before giving way to Jake Upton, who earned the victory in an 11-4 decision. He said it was "amazing" to get his first start of the season, but that his pitches were a little flat and hitters were making contact.
On Saturday, Roberts said he had enough movement on his pitches to keep hitters off balance and to miss or not make solid contact. He had good velocity in his first start after relief appearances against Oxford and West Point, and had the same kind of velocity against Gordo, which beat Caledonia in a five-inning mercy-rule game earlier in the day.
In addition to having better movement on his two-seam fastball, Roberts also slowed down his breaking pitches to create more of a gap between the speed of those pitches and his fastball. The result was a performance that resembled some of Roberts'' finer outings last season.
Roberts said he felt comfortable considering it has been less than a month since he threw in a bullpen session March 11. He said that session was the first time he was able to get his velocity back into the 80s after experiencing shoulder problems earlier in the season.
"I was a little concerned (to let it loose in the bullpen)," Roberts said. "That is natural, but you have to work through it mentally. Physically you know you''re OK, but you have to work through it."
Judging from Roberts'' effort Saturday, you wouldn''t have known he had such a slow start to the season. But Roberts knows how to deal with injuries. Last year, he rebounded from elbow surgery to help lead the Trojans to the Class 4A North Half State championship.
This season, he said he would love to get back into the mix as a regular starter but that he is willing to pitch in whatever role Boyd wants so he can help the team.
Upton, who caught Roberts last season and Friday and Saturday, said his teammate looked sharper against Gordo.
"I think it is something to build his confidence on," Upton said. "Friday night hurt him a little bit, but I think he is back on track, and I think he will be very effective for us. I know he is going to work hard and that he is going to do what he needs to do."
Upton said Roberts'' sliders break off the plate and away from hitters, which makes him very effective.
Boyd also was excited by Roberts'' outing. He said an effective Roberts gives New Hope the luxury of having five pitchers -- Upton, Hawkins, Franks, and Jake Smith -- it can use in any situation.
"When Blake gets back into the mix and throwing strikes and getting back on top of his game like I know he can, I think it definitely will make us harder to beat," Boyd said.
Boyd also praised the effort of Franks, who earned the victory with a complete-game effort against Houston.
"He struggled a little bit early on and got behind some hitters," Boyd said. "But he allowed one run in seven innings, so you can''t complain a whole lot about that, He did a wonderful job for us as well."
Boyd said he wasn''t sure if Hawkins or Upton would start Tuesday for New Hope.
New Hope should feel more confident that it will have a more confident Roberts ready in relief if either pitcher gets in trouble.
"I feel great," Roberts said. "I feel a lot better. I have to work on my changeup a little bit and I have to work on spotting my fastball, but it feels great."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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