Leechburg's knuckleballer flusters hitters
By William West
Published: 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."
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penguins stave off Ducks’ shooting barrage to win in shootout
- East Hills brawl involves 50 people, nets at least 1 arrest
- Trade to Penguins caps frenetic period for winger Stempniak
- Penguins notebook: Maatta leaves lasting impression with Selanne
- Charges mounting in Monessen drug case
- Steelers restructure Brown’s contract to become salary cap compliant
- Greensburg woman accused of assaulting nurse in Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital
- Pirates seek to tap Alvarez’s remaining upside
- Man dies in overnight Butler house fire
- Fabregas: All jobs not equal at UPMC
- W.Va. man dies in Greene County ATV crash