Leechburg's knuckleballer flusters hitters

| Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The baseball moved like none Austin Sipolino had ever seen.

Sipolino, 7 years old at the time, watched the ball leave his father's fingertips and dance through the air on the way to his son's glove.

"What was that?" Sipolino said he asked his dad, Ernie. "And I told him to teach me it because I thought it was the coolest thing ever."

So began a fascination with the knuckleball that has helped Sipolino, now a high school senior, ascend to the top of Leechburg's pitching rotation. While many players regard the strange, shifty pitch as a novelty, Sipolino considers it his go-to option, one that hasn't betrayed him during his past two seasons as a varsity starter.

"He was probably our best pitcher last year," Leechburg coach Bob Oberdorf said.

Sipolino, who went 3-0 as a sophomore and 4-1 as a junior, estimated about 25 to 35 percent of his pitches during the past two seasons were knuckleballs. He said the amount might increase to 40 or even 50 percent this spring.

"Just because of how confident I feel," he said.

His faith in the fluttering pitch was established during his Little League days. Always a bit smaller than his teammates, Sipolino lacked the power his teammates possessed and needed an alternative. Fortunately for Sipolino, his father, who also served as his team manager, had a history with quirky pitches.

As a 15-year-old, Ernie Sipolino knew how to throw a knuckleball, a screwball and almost any other pitch that caught batters off-guard.

Years later, during catch sessions in the backyard, Ernie introduced Austin to a few of his trickier pitches. Aware of the unpredictable nature of the pitches, he initially required Austin to wear a catcher's mask. And the knuckleball, because of its lack of strain on a pitcher's arm, seemed particularly sensible to teach.

"I want you to not necessarily get a batter out with this," Ernie told Austin. "I want you to use this to make batters think, 'I don't know what you're going to do next.' "

Austin used the pitch sporadically throughout middle school. As a freshman, Sipolino relied a bit too much on his knuckleball, he said, and savvy older players made him pay. So in preparation for his sophomore season, Sipolino refined his other options: a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, a cutter-changeup and a curve.

His fastball still didn't overwhelm batters -- even now, Sipolino tops out at 81 or 82 mph, he said. But his heater, when mixed with his knuckleball, became more difficult to hit. Batters, intently waiting on the unfamiliar pitch, were slow to react to fastballs.

Sipolino won three games as a sophomore, with an 0.27 ERA.

Last season, more teams knew about Leechburg's knuckleballer.

"It gets around," Sipolino said. "I'm surprised at how many people are like, 'Here comes the knuckleball. Just sit back and wait for it.' "

Leechburg's WPIAL Class A first-round playoff opponent a season ago, Neshannock, certainly heard about Sipolino. Motivated to avoid an upset, the second-seeded Lancers brought in former players to throw knuckleballs during batting practice as preparation for Sipolino and Leechburg.

Newspapers reported the use of former players in the days after the game, and Neshannock, which won, 4-1, and reached the finals, later received minor punishment from the WPIAL for violating PIAA rules.

The player who caught Sipolino and others the past two seasons, Cory Swarmer, graduated, and Leechburg still is auditioning candidates for a replacement.

Swarmer said whoever emerges as the starter will need time to adjust.

"There's honestly no knuckleball that's the same as any other," he said. "You just have to be pretty quick and reactive.

"I enjoy catching them. I think it's one of the most interesting pitches because you never know where it's going."

Anytime is a good one to throw the pitch, Sipolino said, including when he absolutely needs a strike.

"If I'm full count on a batter, I'll throw my knuckle instead of a fastball just because (the fastball) isn't fast enough," Sipolino explained.

Would Sipolino trade his knuckleball for a better fastball• Absolutely not, he said. Not now, when his two favorite professional pitchers are Tim Lincecum, a diminutive All-Star whose nickname is "The Freak," and Tim Wakefield, the most well-known of the rare knuckleball pitchers in the major leagues.

"You see those kids every day," Sipolino said of high school power pitchers. "It's not every day you see a kid -- 6 foot, 140 pounds -- throw a knuckleball."

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