Riley Grant thought he never had a chance.
A redshirt freshman pitcher at North Carolina’s Belmont Abbey College last season, Grant truly believed he could make an impact for the Crusaders. But the 2017 Walkersville alum made just two appearances on the mound, and his patience quickly wore thin.
“I don’t think they really gave me much of an opportunity to show what I could do, and I wasn’t going to sit around until my junior or senior year to wait and get my chance to play when I wanted to get on the field now,” Grant said when reached via phone Friday.
Although the NJCAA on Monday canceled all spring athletic events in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent recommendations to address the coronavirus pandemic, Grant recently showed he can indeed be a major contributor right now — not two or three years down the road.
Carrying intense focus to the mound in Lake Myrtle Park, Florida, Grant used two words to describe his mindset during a two-hit shutout he threw in Frederick Community College’s 5-0 win over St. Cloud Technical & Community College on March 6: tunnel vision.
“I think that’s what I had because I was staring into [catcher] Spencer [Rhoads’] glove, [and I sensed] nothing else around, not even fans,” Grant said of his seven-inning outing. “I couldn’t even hear anything. It was strictly me and Spencer.”
Grant was so focused that he didn’t know the extent of his dominance until Middletown alum Connor Stevens, a redshirt catcher who kept the scorebook for the game, approached him.
“He walked up to me and said, ‘You know you struck out 16 kids?’” Grant said. “I said, ‘Honestly, I had no idea.’ I was just so locked in on the game.”
As impressive as a 16-strikeout performance may be on paper, especially considering all but five of the St. Cloud batters Grant retired went down on strikes, Grant said he didn’t take too much stock in his statistics. He saw the Cougars as a team that could go deep into the postseason, so he turned his focus to doing whatever he could to make that happen.
“I was just trying to get outs for the team, get the ‘W,’” Grant said.
Rodney Bennett said Grant’s outing ranked among the top three pitching performances he has seen in his 18 years as FCC’s baseball coach.
Grant throws a change-up, but Cougars pitching coach Steve Insley, who called pitches from the dugout, saw no need for the sophomore to use the pitch against St. Cloud. In Insley’s eyes, St. Cloud hitters were “constantly late on his fastball, so we didn’t want to speed their bats up.”
So Grant just relied on his fastball — one college scout at the game clocked it at 88 mph during the late innings — and a sharp-breaking curveball Insley calls “a pro breaking ball.”
“The fastball was flying out of my hand; the curveball was breaking,” said Grant, who walked two in the game. “I never had to use my change-up because my fastball and curveball were so dominant.”
With Grant taking the mound for just the third time, Insley wanted him to throw no more than 95 pitches in the second game of a doubleheader. However, Grant showed him no signs of fatigue. So Insley allowed him to pitch the seventh inning even though the right-hander had already thrown 95 pitches.
“I told [Insley], ‘Honestly, I would have been a little upset if you had taken me out of that game,’” said Grant, who ended up throwing 104 pitches.
Ideal weather also contributed to his dominance, allowing him to get loose quickly.
Additionally, Insley has had Grant end his bullpen sessions prior to the start of games with a simulated inning, which involves the catcher keeping balls and strikes for what Grant calls three “imaginary” batters.
For Insley, it’s a way of helping Grant and other pitchers to address command issues.
In his first start, Grant walked five and allowed two runs over three innings in a no-decision — a 16-7 win over Surry Community College. The next time he took the mound, Grant sharpened his command after a rocky first inning, allowing one hit and three walks while striking out seven over four innings.
Grant had no command issues against St. Cloud.
While Grant primarily throws his curveball when he’s ahead in the count, Insley noted that Grant had the confidence to throw it in three-ball counts — and he threw it for strikes. As for Grant’s 88-mph fastball, Insley sees it picking up velocity as time progresses.
“His breaking ball might be his best pitch,” Insley said. “It’s explosive. It’s not one of those sweeping breaking balls, [but] it’s got a sharp edge to it. It’s got good depth.”
At 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA, Grant attributes his success to being in a good place mentally. At FCC, family and friends were able to consistently see his games, and he has several friends on a roster that includes 11 players from Frederick County high schools.
And unlike last season, he didn’t feel any pressure to perform.
“I can go to practice and go to the games relaxed,” Grant said. “I’m not out there to trying to prove to everybody that I’m good enough. I can go up on the mound and be who I am.”
With the Cougars’ season now suddenly over, Grant and his teammates will likely think of what might have been. FCC’s season ended at 13-5.
“It’s honestly real sad because it was unbelievable how our entire team looked together,” he said. “The [camaraderie] with all of us together was unreal. I’ve never been with a team that was as well put together as we were.”