Season Preview Part One: Starting Pitchers
Leading up to UConn baseball opening day on Feb. 13 at Florida Atlantic, UConnHuskies.com will take an in-depth look at the 2015 squad with player profiles and position-by-position breakdowns. Up first, a look at the UConn relief pitchers and a feature on junior Nico Darras.
By Chris Jones, special to UConnHuskies.com
STORRS, Conn. -- When you see junior Nico Darras pitch, it is a little unorthodox. Darras is a right-handed submarine pitcher, who at times will pitch a little more from a sidearm slot. The delivery is far from ordinary but it fits Darras' style.
Darras isn't afraid to be different, to take the path less traveled, in his mind it will still get him to the places he wants to go. In order to understand this you have to know Nico's story.
Darras grew up on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, in Laguna Beach, California. Once you meet Darras you instantly get that California vibe. Bringing up surf stories, using west coast vernacular, it's a clear giveaway of where Darras is from.
Darras played his high school ball at JSerra Catholic High School, a member of the Trinity League, one of the top athletic conferences in the country. There, Darras was one of the top baseball players in the state, earning numerous accolades.
"High school baseball in California was a cool experience, my high school coach Brett Kay, who was a Cal State Fullerton alum, ran it very similar to a college program," said Darras.
"I felt very prepared going into college, had a good footing in terms of what I was expected to do and what was expected of me.
"I was fortunate, I had a great group of kids around me that we were lucky to have a ton of scouts at each of our games," said Darras. "It was great being a two-time All-American but it wouldn't have happened if I didn't have a great group around me and a great coaching staff."
After graduating from JSerra, Darras went to one of the top baseball programs in the country, a school that was practically in his backyard, Cal State Fullerton. Darras played there his freshmen year before having to making a life changing decision.
"I know one day baseball will end and UConn has an unbelievable academic side that I really wanted to be a part of," said Darras. "It was a really tough decision for me and my family. I moved away to UConn which was 3,000 miles from home. Everything I knew, I had to leave it behind but school is so important. I've been lucky enough to be on the honor roll twice in a row at UConn and to me academics are first. I'm a student-athlete in that order."
For Darras it was a leap of faith. He knew he wanted to go to a school like UConn that had such good academics but he couldn't take any action until he had left Fullerton. After leaving Fullerton it wasn't a guarantee that UConn would have a spot for him on the team.
"Literally I jumped off a cliff with no parachute and I was scared," said Darras. "I didn't know what was going to happen. Fortunately, Fullerton was sending me out to Mystic [Connecticut] for summer ball."
"When I got out here I loved Connecticut, loved the scenery, everything about it. Coach [MacDonald] was my first phone call, he had seen me play back when I played for a summer ball team in Long Island during high school, and I told him I would love to be a Husky, a few weeks later I signed."
Darras was a Husky and ready to compete for a spot in the starting lineup. He got his first start against Auburn, the third game of the season, and played well, 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI.
Things didn't come so easy for Darras though after that first game, there seemed to be a problem with his vision.
"The beginning part of the season was tough. I had trouble seeing the ball at times," said Darras. "So we get to Lipscomb and I said to Coach Penders, I think I need glasses. So I got checked out and sure enough I needed glasses. There was definitely an adjustment period."
"The important thing was that they stuck with me, at no point was I ever just buried, said Darras. "Coach [Jeff] Hourigan and I worked twice a week before class, after practice whenever I had the time and he was there. He always was willing to work with me, which was awesome, my season turned around after working with him."
Darras ended up playing 41 games for the Huskies in 2014, primarily at designated hitter, and hitting .241 with 10 RBIs. However, that's not where the story ends for Darras. During that season Darras discovered something very interesting while having fun with teammates during a rain delay.
"I will never forget it, Rutgers rainout, said Darras. "I remember [sophomore pitcher] Anthony Kay and I were just talking and I told him that I thought I could pitch, sure enough we have a rain delay and we go in the barn and I faced Kay in a live at-bat and [junior Bryan] Daniello filmed it.
"A couple days later I tell Coach Mac that I felt pretty good in there and Daniello showed him the video and it just went from there. I have to thank Coach Penders and Coach Mac for the opportunity, they gave me an opportunity that literally no one else would have. I mean no one else would take a chance on a kid who has never pitched in his life and say go ahead, run with it and that's exactly what they did," Darras recalled.
MacDonald jokingly agrees with Darras about the whole situation. "Isn't recruiting a simple science," said MacDonald. "You get a Cal State Fullerton DH/INF and he does okay playing in his first full year of collegiate baseball and then he goes off and becomes a submariner who is probably going to get a decent amount of innings, exactly how we drew it up."
Darras will be a bullpen arm now for the Huskies as he enters the 2015 season, and both Penders and MacDonald see him in line for major late-game innings. Darras' pitch repertoire includes a fastball, sinker, slider and changeup.
"Right now my sinker and my slider are my go-to out of the pen," said Darras. "I'm a groundball pitcher, my bread and butter is the double play. I will typically face righties a little more sidearm and I have a little more velocity. For lefties I will drop down a little bit more so I can get more sink and make it a little harder on their bat speed. That's the main difference."
Whether it be unorthodox or not, the Huskies will need Darras to get big outs out of the bullpen in order for the team to succeed. For Darras, it may be different but it suits him perfectly.
In addition to Darras, the Huskies have several other relievers who will look to make an impact late in games. UConn held a 2.67 bullpen ERA in 2014, but lost David Mahoney to graduation following the season. Mahoney made 61 appearances out of the bullpen over the last two years, including a program-record 34 outings in 2013.
Devin Over (Windsor, Conn.) led the Huskies in ERA last year with a 2.05 mark in 26.1 innings, and a strong summer along with a fastball clocked in the mid-90s has created high hopes for the redshirt-junior this season.
"Last year was awesome for me. In terms of the season the team didn't have the season we envisioned but individually it was awesome. I was finally able to get back on the mound, it had been a struggle to get there with all the injuries and setbacks but all the hard work to get back was worth it," Over said.
After being limited to five innings in 2012 and 2013 combined, Over was barely more than an afterthought for the UConn 'pen in 2014 before working his way back and becoming an effective late-inning weapon for the Huskies.
"For Devin, he is finally healthy. He isn't worried about throwing a pitch and his shoulder starting to hurt, so he had more confidence and started to hit numbers that he they thought he would hit when he was first recruited here, hitting 94-95," MacDonald said.
Along with Over, sophomore Patrick Ruotolo opened eyes during his rookie campaign a year ago. The Peabody, Mass. native led all bullpen arms with 44.0 innings in relief and held a 2.86 ERA in his 25 outings, striking out 49 batters against only 23 walks. He was the lone Husky on the year to strikeout over a batter per inning and posted a pair of saves, both coming in three-inning outings.
"This year I'm looking to be a better closer, I've been working on my off speed pitches especially my curveball which I figured out this summer. I need to throw more strikes and not walk as many people, that was a big thing that killed me last year," Ruotolo said.
He spent his summer with the Brewster Whitecaps in the prestigious Cape Cod Collegiate Baseball League, an experience he thinks will translate well to success this season in Storrs.
"First off it was a great time, it was great to just be able to play there. The hitters are really good, I had to learn real fast how to pitch," Ruotolo said. "My first outing was probably the worst you could do, I walked three and got one out. But after that I was able to figure it out, throw strikes and build some confidence."
"I think Pat needs to be the guy who is the same guy from pitch to pitch and inning to inning. He might be the only pitcher that I've ever had that has ever struck out the side in multiple appearances throughout the year," MacDonald said.
"His stuff, from a swing and miss standpoint, we haven't had a guy like that since [Rockies prospect] Scott Oberg. Is he going to be Scott Oberg, I don't know yet but we will see," the UConn pitching coach added.
The Huskies also return experience in the form of redshirt junior Max Slade (Cheshire, Conn.), who tossed 26.2 innings last season, and redshirt sophomore Ryan Radue (Appleton, Wis.), who made 12 relief appearances in 2014. Slade posted a 3.04 ERA and 21 strikeouts, while Rade held a 2.51 mark and a .235 batting average against.
"We have more depth and more experience this season. Last year we weren't sure about Ruotolo and he turned out to be really good. We got Radue, Darras, Over so a lot of experience," Slade said.
""I've been feeling good, working on the curveball so I have something to complement the fastball this year. I have a get me over curve and then another one that I will use to get strike three," Radue said. "We have a nice group to get the job done and slam the door to hopefully a lot of wins."
MacDonald also thinks the Huskies could see increased support from the freshman class, including redshirt freshman Trevor Holmes (Ashland, Mass.).
"Holmes who went away for the summer and got a lot of appearances. He put down the bat and just focused on pitching and he did well when he pitched in the fall. He looks like he is going to be able to help us out, " MacDonald.
"There may be some other surprises as well, some of the freshman have pitched fairly well, it's just a matter of if these guys are going to open up a window or not," he added.
Over is especially excited about the potential depth in the bullpen with the season just around the corner.
"Our bullpen stacks up with anyone in the country, we have arms everywhere whether it is Pat [Ruotolo], he is throwing great right now. Nico Darras, going down from submarine spot, that has been huge. Trevor [Holmes] and some of the freshman have been pretty good as well. It is going to be exciting, we are really deep," Over said.
"In the past it was two or three guys who would get the workload and this year we could see seven, eight, nine guys throwing. That is good because we will be fresh come the end of the season."