Throwing Batters Curves Before Throwing a Pitch
By ALAN SCHWARZ
The pitch was nothing remarkable: Pat Venditte, Creighton University’s temporarily right-handed pitcher, threw a fastball past a Northern Iowa batter for a called strike three. It was his next windup that evinced this young pitcher’s uniqueness and, perhaps, professional future.
As his teammates whipped the ball around the infield, Venditte smoothly, unthinkingly, removed his custom glove from his left hand and slipped it on his right. Moments later he leaned back, threw a strike left-handed to the next batter, and finished the side in order.
Venditte is believed to be the only ambidextrous pitcher in N.C.A.A. Division I college baseball, the ultimate relief specialist. A junior, he throws left-handed to lefties and right-handed to righties, and effectively. In a home game in Omaha last Friday, he allowed only one hit in five and a third shutout innings to earn the victory against Northern Iowa.
Because neither arm was particularly tired afterward, Venditte also pitched in both games of Creighton’s doubleheader against Northern Iowa two days later, retiring the only batter he faced (left-handed) in the first game and then tossing a shutout inning (pitching both ways) in the nightcap. He also pitched two innings, alternating arms, in Tuesday’s game against archrival Nebraska. Venditte (pronounced ven-DEH-tee) has a fine 3.29 earned run average in 18 appearances this season.
“I don’t think twice about it,” said Venditte, whose father, Pat Sr., taught him to throw with both arms when he was 3. “You grew up with it, you love it, you want to keep playing as long as you can.”
Venditte has improved so much in the past year that major league scouts are starting to consider him a possible late-round pick in this June’s amateur draft because of his versatility. “He could be an economical two-for-one,” Jerry Lafferty, a longtime scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, said last Friday while assessing the 21-year-old Venditte from behind the backstop.
College baseball has had a few switch-pitchers in the past 15 years, but the major leagues have had only one since the 19th century: Greg Harris, primarily a right-handed reliever for many clubs from 1981 through 1995, pitched one inning using both arms for the Montreal Expos in his final season. That outing was considered more stunt than strategy.
Venditte is smoothly proficient from both sides. His deliveries are not mirror images of each other: as a right-hander he throws over the top and relatively hard, up to 91 miles an hour, with a tumbling curveball; as a left-hander, he relies on a whip-like sidearm delivery and a biting slider.
Umpires working Creighton’s games have to dust off seldom-used rules regarding switch-pitchers. Like everyone else, Venditte gets only eight warm-up pitches upon entering a game and five before any inning, whether he chooses to throw left-handed or right-handed, and may not warm up again if he changes arms midinning.
A switch-pitcher facing a switch-hitter could make a fine Abbott and Costello routine. Against Nebraska last year, a switch-hitter came to the plate right-handed, prompting Venditte to switch to his right arm, which caused the batter to move to the left-hand batter’s box, with Venditte switching his arm again. Umpires ultimately restored order, applying the rule (the same as that in the majors) that a pitcher must declare which arm he will use before throwing his first pitch and cannot change before the at-bat ends.
“Eventually, after 10 or 15 minutes, they got it figured out,” Venditte said with a smile.
Venditte’s customized Louisville Slugger glove is as distinctive as its owner: four fingers are flanked by two thumbs, perfectly symmetrical, so that he can slip it on either hand with ease. It allows him to change throwing arms so seamlessly during warmups — one second No. 27 is throwing left-handed, the next right-handed — that many unaware fans and opponents do double-takes.
“The first time you see him, it’s definitely a distraction,” said Northern Iowa shortstop Brandon Douglas, who struck out (right-handed) against Venditte last Friday. “On the bus ride to games people talk, ‘You should see this guy. It’s pretty neat.’ ”
Until teams actually face him, that is. Creighton’s coach, Ed Servais, initially resisted using Venditte both ways because, he said, “I am a traditionalist when it comes to baseball, and I didn’t want it to become a circus.” But Venditte proved his ability last season, when he used both arms in 22 games and struck out batters each way in 12 of them.
The Bluejays use Venditte as a long reliever so that he can be deployed at any point in any game. In the Northern Iowa game last Friday, for example, Venditte quelled a third-inning rally and then, facing a lineup that alternated its lefty and righty hitters, calmly switched throwing arms 10 times in the next five innings and allowed no runs and only one single. (Pitch limits are looser with Venditte because he shares the workload between his arms.)
“Usually you have to follow the hitter: a left-hander’s coming up, so you have to decide whether to bring a lefty in,” Creighton’s pitching coach, Rob Smith, said. “In this scenario, you have the control. It helps the depth of the bullpen a lot — you don’t have to burn a guy to get the matchup you want.”
Venditte is naturally right-handed. But his father, a former college ballplayer who at 61 still catches for his Men’s Senior Baseball League team, noticed his 3-year-old son picking up a ball and throwing it with both arms on his own, and encouraged him to pursue it.
“You’ve got to cultivate that,” said Pat Sr., who later built a batting cage, complete with lights, near the family’s home in an Italian neighborhood of Omaha.
To build his son’s muscles for baseball, Pat Sr. also taught Little Pat to punt with both legs and throw a football with both arms. “If I’d stuck with it,” he said, “he could have been a QB with both hands.”
Venditte’s mound versatility could become an interesting test of baseball’s trend toward specialization. Major league teams have long forced college stars who both pitch and hit — players like Dave Stieb, John Olerud and Brad Wilkerson — to focus on either pitching or hitting as professionals, claiming that one is difficult enough. But as bullpens become ever more segmented, with left-handed and right-handed specialists entering games for only one or two batters apiece, a pitcher who can do both for one salary would certainly be intriguing.
Venditte said he would probably return to Creighton for his senior season, trying to add a few miles an hour to his fastballs and enjoying the camaraderie of college ball. After throwing his five-plus innings last Friday, Venditte characteristically shunned ice treatment and skipped the trainer’s room. He joined the rest of his teammates by pulling the tarp across the diamond — with both hands, naturally.