WINCHESTER – Robert Klinchock spoke like the leader of Shenandoah University’s pitching staff at the start of the month, days before the Hornets were to open Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament play with a best-of-three series against Hampden-Sydney on May 4.
While discussing his mindset heading into the postseason, Klinchock, a senior, said then that he knew what it took to win playoff games having been there before, and that he’d do his best to make sure the Hornets’ younger, more inexperienced pitchers were ready for their moment, should it arrive over the next few weeks.
Three weeks later, Shenandoah is still rolling along in the playoffs with a super regional date with Johns Hopkins in Baltimore this weekend next up on the Hornets’ ride. On Tuesday, Klinchock explained exactly how he got Shenandoah’s pitchers ready to contribute to what has become a postseason to remember.
“I just basically tried to keep the moment as small for them as possible,” Klinchock said. “I tried to make them focused and relaxed, basically. When we play relaxed, that’s when we’re at our best. Even if they have like a bad inning, I come and talk to them, settle them down, calm them down, and kind of just like keep them as calm, as relaxed as I possibly could. That helped them out, especially.”
Shenandoah’s pitching staff has answered the call this postseason.
The Hornets entered the ODAC tournament with a collective ERA of 5.63 through the regular season. In 11 postseason games, Shenandoah has lowered that number nearly three full runs, to 2.66.
“We just kind of felt like now’s the time,” Klinchock said of SU’s pitchers, who have allowed 29 earned runs in 98 playoff innings. “We really can’t hold anything back because we won’t get many opportunities after this. Me especially, so I kind of harped that on my guys to be like ‘this may be your last game of the season, so go out with a bang.’ We’ve been fortunate enough to string some good games together.”
Shenandoah has gotten timely – and sometimes surprising – contributions on the mound from a variety of arms in the playoffs. Naturally, it was Klinchock who got everything started by throwing back-to-back complete-game shutouts in the ODAC tournament, which was spread across two weekends.
The rest of the Hornets followed suit.
“We build off each other’s starts,” said Hornets junior right-hander Reeves Lowry, SU’s No. 2 starter who will get the ball in Game 2 of the super regional on Saturday if everything goes according to plan. “If one guy has a great start usually the next guy will have a much better start because he’s more comfortable. He knows that the previous guy saved the bullpen for him, so he’s more comfortable knowing that he doesn’t have to pitch perfect. I see that all across the board with our staff and everything, and Bob, he’s the one that pretty much leads us in that charge.”
There’s a camaraderie there among the pitchers – Lowry said this year’s Shenandoah team is probably the closest-knit he’s seen in his time at the school – but there’s also a competitive side that’s fueling the Hornets’ success.
“We always talk about setting the bar for each other, so like Bob sets the bar for me, I try to beat it and stuff like that. And the past few times he’s set the bar pretty high,” Lowry said with a laugh.
Klinchock (7-5, 4.13 ERA, 62 strikeouts in 89 ⅓ innings this season) saw his string of 20 ⅔ scoreless innings snapped in Shenandoah’s first game of the Union (New Jersey) Regional last weekend, a 5-3 loss to Kean University in which he allowed five earned runs in seven innings.
But with Shenandoah facing elimination and needing to win four straight to advance out of the regional round for the first time since 2010, other SU pitchers rose to the challenge.
Lowry, who hadn’t made it out of the fifth inning in his previous two starts, went eight innings while allowing one earned run in a 9-2 win over Ithaca in SU’s second regional game.
Later that same day, freshman right-hander Carson Kulina threw the first complete game of his young career in a 7-1 win over Westfield State, and junior closer Gerard DePhillips – the Division III leader in saves (13) – threw 4 ⅔ innings of relief in a rematch against Kean to help force a winner-takes-all game for the regional championship last Sunday.
In that title game, Shenandoah senior right-hander Ryan Coulon provided perhaps the most surprising outing of all. Coulon, who had logged just 2 1/3 innings the entire season to that point, went seven innings against Kean and allowed just one run on six hits and three walks.
“It’s awesome,” Klinchock said of SU’s pitchers rising to the challenge. “Seeing guys like Ryan Coulon, who’s got two innings all year, he goes out and shines in the championship. And Carson dealt in his start, too. We have a mixture of guys that have stepped up, not really like known guys, and we’ve got young guys who are throwing the ball extremely well. And then, of course, Gerard is one of the better guys out of the bullpen in the whole country. I’ve got faith in all of them to go out and get the job done no matter the situation.”
The Hornets have not been overpowering on the mound. SU’s pitchers are averaging just 3.86 strikeouts per nine innings in the postseason, down from the rate of 7.13 the Hornets averaged in 37 regular-season games.
Shenandoah head coach Kevin Anderson, who serves as his own pitching coach, said SU’s arms have been backed by “outstanding defense” in the playoffs, particularly up the middle and in the outfield, which allows the pitchers to challenge hitters.
“We don’t have a lot of power arms throwing in the high 80s, low 90s,” Anderson said. “We’ve gotta change speeds, locate the fastball, hold runners on, try to control people’s running game. Been a lot of fun to work with these guys. They’re a close-knit staff. We talk about these guys being a team within a team. They really pull for each other to do well, and in today’s ‘me, me’ society, it’s very refreshing that you have guys that are team-oriented.”
Shenandoah’s next challenge figures to be a daunting one. Johns Hopkins leads Division III with 79 home runs in 44 games and is fifth in the nation in runs per game (9.3). SU has yet to allow a home run this postseason but will be pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark at Stromberg Stadium this weekend.
“Just attacking hitters, working both sides of the plate,” Lowry said of keeping the ball in the yard. “We usually try to go hard in, soft away. That usually throws hitters off a little bit, and when we throw hitters off their timing, it’s really hard for them to get it out of the ballpark.”