Aces relishing the return of small-ball

New state rules that limit the impact of batted balls will give edge to pitchers

By Ryan MacInnis
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2012
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As Dustin Hunt of St. John’s Prep stared down catcher Jake Barosin, the 2-2 count loomed in the distant scoreboard on Wednesday afternoon.

Two outs away from fourth inning relief, the slender, 6-foot-3 Hunt shook off two signs before dropping in a looping 12-to-6 curveball. Central Catholic batter Patrick Gleason stared at strike three and left the plate shaking his head in disbelief.

Hunt is getting his first taste of winning at Prep after attending Andover High as a freshman and sophomore, where he played baseball and basketball.

In his first start, Hunt demonstrated the control he was so well known for at Andover, allowing just one hit while striking out three in 4 1/3 innings of a 6-0 victory.

“I focused on getting stronger, and had a pitching coach all throughout the year to really help me focus on pitching,’’ said Hunt. “Being tall definitely helps, but my command and composure have always been my strengths.’’

With the start of a new season, and the implementation of the new BBCOR bats by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, with balls at least theoretically not flying around the park as frequently, pitchers like Hunt may be in command more than ever on the mound.

The new bats have a reduced trampoline effect after contact, resulting in reduced speeds of batted balls. The “sweet spots’’ on bats have also been shortened.

It’s a safer bat, but it likely means fewer hits and fewer runs.

“It’s a lot more small-ball and it’s a different game,’’ said Hunt. “There won’t be as many big hits with the wood, which will be an advantage to the pitchers. But overall, everyone is going to have more of a defensive mindset because there won’t be those big innings.’’

Prep coach Pat Yanchus is not worried.

“We’ve been playing very well defensively and pitched well and fielded well,’’ said Yanchus. Hunt “competes, has a real nice changeup, threw strikes, and fielded the position well. With the rule change, I think everyone will see more responsibilities fall on the shoulders of the pitchers defensively.’’

Newburyport, the defending state champion in Division 3, has its own ace in senior Brett Fontaine.

Fontaine, a standout basketball player this winter, was instrumental in last year’s run by the baseball squad, winning 11 out of 12 starts while recording a 1.22 ERA.

“I’ve been preparing for this season by throwing and hitting a lot during the winter months, trying to get in midseason form,’’ said Fontaine.

“I don’t think the pitchers have to prep for the new bats, but to know how to be more involved when the ball comes off the bat.’’

Fontaine has taken the same approach to this season as he did during the Clippers’ championship run, making sure his pitches are under tight command.

“I’m going to have to command all three of my pitches in order to be successful and put hitters away when I get ahead,’’ he said.

With the retirement of longtime coach Bill Pettengill, Newburyport is under the direction of former assistant Steve Malevant, previously the head coach at Triton Regional.

Peabody’s Pat Ruotolo will certainly be a force for the Tanners this season after a 6-2, 103-strikeout sophomore campaign. He was impressive in his start against St. John’s Prep on Tuesday, tossing 3 1/3 hitless innings of a 5-4, 10-inning loss. He fanned nine in a complete-game effort.

Ruotolo “came into the season and into camp in phenomenal shape,’’ said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt.

“His arm looked phenomenal and he has the most endurance around the league as far as arm durability is concerned, and that makes him even more of a threat,’’ the coach said.

With the new bats, Bettencourt says that Ruotolo and the Tanners will handle the “small ball’’ way of playing.

“We stole 93 bases last season,’’ said Bettencourt. “We traditionally play ‘small ball’ because we used to be in the Greater Boston League [with wood bats], but definitely, the pitchers will have more power this year to really make an impact than in previous years.’’

The Reading Rockets have a similar take with their ace, Scott Tully, looking to make more than the traditional impact.

The junior lefty won 14 games in his first two years and was a league all-star.

Tully “is a very competitive kid,’’ said coach Peter Moscariello. “He wants the ball in tough situations, doesn’t get flustered, and is in total control of himself.’’

Moscariello said he believes that the pitchers will be more involved defensively than before, but understands that it still comes down to the basics.

“We know the bats are different, but you’re not going to get rewarded unless you swing the bat, so we’re going to need to put the ball in the air.

“Defensively, teams will need to play better because it will definitely be harder to come back from a three-run deficit in one inning like they used to.’’

These pitchers and teams will be put to the test as their squads open up their respective seasons, but regardless of changes and pitcher mentality, Fontaine says the mindset needs to be the same.

“There are a lot of good hitters out there, and if you make a mistake they are going to hurt you, no matter what kind of bat they use.’’

Ryan MacInnis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMacInnis

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