FRONT ROYAL – Rob Griswold was a middle infielder, one who’d seen sparse action in only 14 games as a freshman at Long Island University Brooklyn in 2017, when the Milford, Connecticut, native made a switch this past spring that has changed the course of his college baseball career.
The 2018 NCAA baseball season was humming along when Griswold approached Blackbirds head coach Dan Pirillo to inform him that he was ready to try his arm on the mound as a reliever. Members of LIU Brooklyn’s coaching staff had previously thought Griswold would make a nice addition to the bullpen considering his natural sidearm motion when slinging throws to first base from across the diamond, Griswold recalled earlier this week, and Griswold was ready to oblige them.
The right-hander, who was a closer in high school, made his college pitching debut on March 27, tossing a scoreless inning while allowing two hits in a 5-3 loss to Stony Brook.
“It was weird because there’s no easy outs in college,” said Griswold, who is playing for the Front Royal Cardinals in the Valley Baseball League this summer. “One through nine is gonna be a hard out to get and it was nerve-wracking at first. I didn’t know what to expect and then it sort of got easier as I started realizing I kind of belonged on the mound.”
Griswold fit quite nicely into his new role at LIU Brooklyn in 2018. In 18 relief appearances, primarily as the Blackbirds’ setup man, the righty tossed 30 innings while sporting a team-low 2.10 ERA, 28 strikeouts and two saves.
He played a key role in LIU Brooklyn’s run to its first-ever Northeast Conference tournament championship in May – first picking up a three-inning save in an upset of top-seeded Bryant, and then throwing three more innings in a victory over No. 2 Wagner the following day – which sent the Blackbirds to their first NCAA regional since 1972.
“It was crazy in the beginning,” Griswold said of his rapid rise to becoming one of LIU Brooklyn’s top relievers. “The first weekend, the first month I started pitching, I started on a Wednesday and then two weeks later I was facing three, four, five at Pitt in the eighth inning when we were winning by one run. That was crazy how quick it escalated.”
Even during his evolution as a late-inning arm, Griswold remained a spot starter as a position player this past spring and played all over the infield – and even some in the outfield – while batting .213 with a homer and three RBIs in 47 at-bats for the Blackbirds.
With Front Royal, Griswold’s value as a pitcher and middle infielder has been invaluable for a Cardinals squad that has been decimated by injuries and player departures throughout the second half of the Valley League season.
Entering Friday’s doubleheader at Woodstock, Griswold had posted a 1.40 ERA and four saves in 11 appearances spanning 19 1/3 innings. He’d even started a game against Waynesboro last Sunday, tossing five scoreless innings during what Griswold said was likely the longest outing of his entire career.
Griswold, who was a VBL All-Star selection as a pitcher, also has become the Cardinals’ starting second baseman when he’s not on the mound, and he was batting .356 (16-for-45) with six RBIs and 13 runs scored entering Friday.
“His value, I don’t know if you can put a number on it,” Cardinals manager Zeke Mitchem said. “I mean he’s picked up a lot of pieces for us on the defensive side in the middle infield. He’s had great at-bats basically from the day he got here.
“Rob’s been great and he’s done it on both sides of the ball, and we’re glad to have him.”
On the mound, Griswold said he tends to rely on a sinking fastball that he keeps low in the zone, as well as a slider. He’s been working on a changeup during his time with the Cardinals, he said, though it’s a pitch that’s difficult to master with his unorthodox arm angle.
“His effectiveness really, he’s a freak-ball pitcher,” Mitchem said. “… He’s a sidearm, submarine guy, so he keeps the ball down. He’s a groundball, contact guy that can throw a strikeout in there when he needs it, but he’s more of a ‘I’m gonna pound the strike zone.’ His pace of play is phenomenal. Guys love playing behind him because he’s gonna get the ball and go. There’s not a lot of dead time, there’s gonna be action, so that’s why he was effective as the bullpen guy early is he got faster than everybody else.”
As a hitter, Griswold said he focuses most of his energy on hitting balls to the opposite field.
“I just try and backspin balls through the right side of the infield,” he said. “It’s been working.”
Griswold has also shown more patience at the plate in the VBL, drawing 11 walks in 59 plate appearances with Front Royal after drawing just seven walks in 80 combined plate appearances in his first two collegiate seasons. Griswold’s Valley League on-base percentage was .508 entering Friday.
“More patient, and also not missing early in the count,” he said of his approach at the plate this summer. “Like if I get a good fastball early in the count, I’ll take a pass at it. But also seeing pitches if I don’t get that pitch early in the count.”
In the limited time he has left in the Valley League season, Griswold said he’s aiming to continue developing on the mound and to “get more feel for my stuff.”
As a team, the Cardinals are scrambling to regain some consistency after losing their grip on the North Division lead earlier this week. Front Royal entered Friday a game back of Purcellville for the top spot in the North, although the Cardinals are still in position to claim a playoff spot barring a catastrophic collapse over the final week of the regular season.
“Just get back to our pitching, getting our pitching in line and our offense will come around,” Griswold said of a late-season turnaround for the Cardinals. “That’s not a worry.”