SEMINOLE — Michael Mann crouched behind the plate Tuesday, putting his glove where he knew his pitcher would find it.
It didn’t seem to matter if Nick Nolan had already thrown two balls, or even three.
It didn’t seem to matter if he was throwing a changeup, or a curveball.
A pitch that a lot of high school pitchers would be uncomfortable throwing — offspeed, down in the count — Nolan threw with fearlessness.
This, said Mann, the Seminole catcher, is the biggest difference between catching Nolan’s pitches last year, when the big right-hander was a little-used pitcher, and catching Nolan this year, when he has been arguably the best pitcher in Pinellas County.
“He spots,” Mann said. “I put my glove out, he hits it, no matter where it is. Especially with his offspeed. Most high school pitchers, when they throw offspeed, they bury it; they throw it high. But him, I put my glove on the inside corner and he hits it every time. That’s a big thing.”
A huge thing, really, that helps explain how Nolan went from a little-used pitcher as a junior, throwing 24 nondescript innings, to a guy who has won all five of his starts this season and hurled the first no-hitter of his life Tuesday against Pinellas Park.
It started last summer, when the 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior joined Sam Marsonek’s AAU team out of Tampa.
Marsonek, a Jesuit product and former first-round draft pick who made it to the majors for a sip of coffee with the New York Yankees, knows a little about pitching.
And he knew this about Nolan — he needed confidence more than he needed a 90-mph fastball.
While he made a few minor tweaks with Nolan’s delivery and urged him to pitch more aggressively, he says he merely placed his trust in his student’s pitches.
“When he started with us at the beginning of the summer, he was a little timid and not as aggressive on the mound and in the strike zone,” said Marsonek, coach at Cambridge Christian. “I put (my pitchers) in situations they may be uncomfortable with, like a 2-0 count with the bases loaded and call I’ll an offspeed pitch. It’s really just getting them to trust their pitches. Sometimes, you have to trust it, or fail.”
For a kid who throws in the high 80s but isn’t a dominating strikeout guy, the ability to throw all three pitches whenever and wherever was vital.
Nolan got the message.
When he showed up for fall ball with the Warhawks, everyone noticed a new guy.
“He came back a different pitcher,” Mann said.
“A tremendous leap,” said Seminole coach Jeff Pincus, and as a result he predicted a breakout season for Nolan.
But he wasn’t considered the team ace when the season started.
“I don’t think there’d be much of an argument about that now,” Pincus said. “I’m proud of him. He has just dominated five times. We’ve got nine wins, and he has five of them, and a no-hitter.”
In 29 innings, Nolan has allowed 19 hits, and opponents are hitting just .183 against him, compared with a team-worst .296 last season.
He beat Venice, ranked No. 11 in the country by Baseball America at the time, in his first start, going the distance, which remains the only loss suffered by the Indians.
In his last start against the Patriots, he threw a no-hitter, striking out a season-high seven.
“He’s been like that the whole season,” Mann said. “When he started off his junior year, he didn’t get much pitching in, but this year he’s went off since the first game. … Hopefully he can keep that up, and we can go far in the playoffs.”
The confidence has impacted Nolan at the plate as well. His batting average is up, from .232 to .387 this season, and he hit his first career home run.
He made big changes during the summer, but don’t plan on Nolan changing a thing right now.
Even heading out to the mound for the last inning fully aware of his no-hitter, the mind-set was the same it was over the summer.
“Just get three outs,” Nolan said, “and put the pitches where they are called.”