Damiano, Cavs' dominator

Baseball: The left-handed senior's near-90 mph pitches blind county batters but caught the eye of Penn State, which put up a scholarship to make him its closer next season.

April 11, 1999|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

South Carroll's Kevin Damiano said he never really envisioned himself as a closer. At just 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, he has neither the intimidating presence of a Goose Gossage nor the imposing build of a Lee Smith.

In fact, he admitted, he has trouble with the notion of being "mean" on the mound. The honors student is just too nice a guy.

But to see why Penn State signed him to be its closer beginning next season, you need look no farther than the speed gun.

Throwing upward of 90 mph, Damiano has dominated hitters during his three years on South Carroll's varsity.

"He's just improved each year," said Cavaliers coach George Richardson. "When he came up as a sophomore, he was undisciplined, but he's really matured into what I feel is a very good baseball player.

"If he can throw the ball by you, he'll throw the ball by you. If he's got to pitch to you, he's going to pitch. He's gotten smarter about seeing the weaknesses in people's swings, and things like that."

In helping the Cavaliers to a 4-2 start, he has pitched six scoreless innings -- including one start and one relief appearance -- allowing five hits, striking out 13 and walking just two. For his career he is 6-2, last year finishing with a gleaming 2.38 ERA.

Though innings can be scarce on a team with four pitchers already signed to play in college next season, and possibly a fifth, Damiano said he's tried to make the most of his opportunities. After essentially trying to blow away every hitter as a sophomore, he's since come up with a biting curveball and change-up, as well, making him more of a "complete pitcher" in Richardson's eyes.

His biggest strides, however, have been at the plate.

"When he was a sophomore, he wanted to try and rip everything," recalled Richardson, an assistant at the time. "Now he just takes his time and drives the ball where it's pitched. It comes from maturity, practice and hard work. He has improved his hitting dramatically."

He is batting .579, with three doubles, two home runs, three steals and a county-best 13 RBIs.

Damiano, the first in South Carroll's current senior class to make the varsity, said the key to this season's gaudy numbers has been keeping away from slumps that have dogged him before.

"My big key coming into this season was not to strike out or get out more than twice a game," said Damiano, who wears No. 13 out of superstition. "My concentration is better this year. Honestly, I think I've come a long way. Now that I'm a senior, I feel that I have the experience and understand what it takes to be a quality ballplayer at this level."

His work on the mound earned him a college scholarship.

Richardson said that despite the fact that scouts clocked him at 87 mph last season and 89 this year, many never took him seriously because of his short stature. Damiano said he's just thankful to be a southpaw.

"Being left-handed is what's helped me the most," he said. "I think if I [were] right-handed, being 5-foot-8, not too many people were going to look at me as a quality pitcher."

After watching him pitch, many had asked him if he'd ever thought about being a closer. Comparisons have even been made to Billy Wagner, the 5-foot-10, left-handed closer for the Houston Astros.

Damiano, known to teammate as "Box" because of his flat-top haircut, said he had never seriously thought about coming out of the bullpen until the recruiting process began in earnest last year. Now, he said he likes the idea.

"I think it would be kind of fun. You get to pitch almost every day," said Damiano. "As a starter, you have to worry about going five, six, seven innings. You have to pace yourself, not throw too many pitches, and hit your spots. But being a closer, you get in there and throw the ball. You don't have to worry about the next inning."

Also an honors student with a 3.98 grade-point average, he said one of the things that attracted him to Penn State was the fact that players are given laptop computers for use on road trips. As a future accounting major, he expects to be pressing a lot of buttons.

And punching out hitters.

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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