COLUMBIA — Travis Bittle kicks up his big left leg. Keeping his right elbow up throughout his throwing motion, he hurls the ball home in a herky-jerky motion. Sometimes it’s a hard fastball. Or a sharp curveball. Or a nasty split-finger.
Whatever it is, the Rock Bridge sophomore pitcher puts everything behind it.
“I just like it because I don’t have to conserve all my energy throughout the whole game,” Bittle said. “Throw my best stuff in that one inning.”
The mindset of a closer.
Bittle, who is tall and solidly built and wears a flat-brimmed hat, is one of the few high school pitchers who can call himself a closer – a pitcher who enters a game in the late innings (usually the last) to try and close out a win. Most teams use different pitchers to finish games, but Bittle is right for the role.
“He’s mentally prepared, so it’s not just like a shock when (he gets called on),” Rock Bridge coach Justin Towe said. “He’s already prepared to go get it, and that’s three-fourths of the battle right there.”
On Thursday, it didn’t look like Bittle would get into the game. Facing rival Hickman in the last game of the regular season, Rock Bridge trailed throughout the game until the bottom of the sixth.
That’s when Bittle started to warm up, knowing he might have a chance to finish off the Kewpies. Pinch hitter Simon Beeson drove in two runs with a two-out single, giving Rock Bridge its first lead of the day at 5-3. In the top of the seventh, in came Bittle.
“Every game he’s got to be ready, mentally ready and focused, watching the (opposing) batters and just come in and dominate when they put him in,” said Wilson Pfeiffer, Bittle’s catcher on Thursday, who scored the tying run in the sixth.
Bittle has started before and said he is slated to start the second game of the district tournament, which begins Saturday. But Towe uses him to finish games because Rock Bridge has several quality starting pitchers. And, with his strong arm and funky delivery, Bittle gives the Bruins a different look.
“You don’t see people like him very often, so it takes a little bit to adjust,” Towe said. “You go in one inning like that, that’s not easy. I’m not so sure I’d want to get up there and take a hack at it.
“But you’ve got to have the right mind frame. You’ve got to be ready to go at the drop of a hat, and he’s always focused. That’s probably what’s made him so successful so far is he’s ready to play at any point in time.”
His catcher has to be ready, too.
“You’ve got to be focused (to catch him),” Pfeiffer said. “Very focused. His splitter and curveball have lots of movement, so you’ve got to be ready to block anything in the dirt. But it’s definitely fun to catch him.”
Bittle likes to make it interesting. On Thursday, he walked Hickman’s leadoff hitter in the seventh on four pitches.
“I always call him Isringhausen out there because I tell him he gets an Izzy save because there’s usually somebody on base,” Towe said. “And sometimes there’s more than that. … You’re kind of biting your fingers a little bit. But he gets it done.”
After the leadoff walk, Bittle froze Hickman cleanup hitter Jordan Strawn with a curveball. Two batters later, Bittle pumped his fist after getting the last out and giving Rock Bridge (14-13) a 5-3 win at home, plus a season sweep of Hickman. It was Bittle’s fifth save of the season, tying a Rock Bridge record.
“Being the one to get the last person out, it’s a really good feeling,” said Bittle, whose favorite big-league closer is the Red Sox’s Jonathan Papelbon.
Although Bittle handled Hickman in the seventh, the Kewpies (6-11) controlled most of the game. They started with three consecutive hits and led 2-0 before a batter was retired. But, with the bases loaded and just one out, Bruins starter Jaide Rose got a strikeout and lineout to limit the damage.
In the fourth, Hickman’s Jonathan Litteken stood on third with one out. He broke for home as Ehrich Chick let the pitch go by. Litteken stopped and was tagged out five feet from home plate as the Kewpies again failed to cushion their lead.
“Once we get a lead, we have to learn to close the door,” Hickman coach Bobby Chick said. “That’s probably been our biggest Achilles heel this year is we get leads, and we just find ways to let them slip through our fingers.”