The comeback king
Ursuline grad Hake returning for another year with Penguins
YOUNGSTOWN — Comebacks are nothing new to Joel Hake, and the right-handed pitcher is confident he and the Youngstown State baseball team have another one left in them.
The former Ursuline High School standout had his senior season cut short — twice. The first time was in 2019, when he suffered a hamstring injury after a road trip to start the season. He received a medical redshirt and had a strong return in 2020.
Hake earned a 1.29 ERA out of the bullpen and batters were hitting .050 off of him in 10 appearances this past season. Then the pandemic hit, and all NCAA spring sports were canceled. The NCAA granted all seniors an extra year of eligibility, and Hake intends to take advantage of the opportunity.
“I’m going back, 100 percent,” said Hake, now 23 and entering his third senior season. “I think most of the redshirt seniors are coming back. I started a grad school program my fifth year, and so I’ll be able to finish it in my sixth year (the 2020-21 school year), so that kind of worked out good for me.”
It’s not the first time change has worked in Hake’s favor.
Hake used a typical, over-the-top throwing motion all his life as a pitcher, but he also was an infielder for much of his career. One throwing motion infielders must often revert to is a sidearm style. While Hake enjoyed a lot of success as a true freshman, earning a 4.40 ERA (he had a 2.91 ERA aside from an eight-run outing), he struggled as a sophomore.
It was then he considered making a change. He went to his coaches, and they were on board.
“I liked the idea,” YSU coach Dan Bertolini of Hake said switching to sidearm. “Sometimes it’s tough when you’re a smaller pitcher, with that overhand look, sometimes (the pitch) is a little straighter, and it’s a little easier to hit. He was an infielder his whole life; he played shortstop growing up. He was even a two-way (player) when he came to YSU. It’s kind of a natural arm slot for those middle infield guys. They can come down and throw from the side.
“I had a good feeling that he was going to be able to handle that pretty well, and it drastically changed his career. He’s become really tough to hit. He hides (the ball) really well.”
The delivery change didn’t happen overnight.
Hake played with the alterations for months, but once he figured it out, the new motion transformed his pitching. His ERA was over 6.00 as a sophomore when he threw over the top. He dropped down to sidearm and lowered his ERA to 4.35 as a junior, when he led the team in appearances. In fact, Hake is YSU’s all-time leader in appearances (89) despite not yet having a full senior year, and he’s not done yet.
Hake plans to continue the sidearm approach next season. He said the different arm slot can make his pitches harder to recognize, but the real change is in the course of the ball.
“I hide the ball a little bit,” Hake said. “The fastball will run in on right-handers. It’s kind of a movement thing. I throw sidearm so it gets more movement. My fastball will run in, and I throw a slider that basically goes away from the hitter, and then I throw a changeup that drops. So, whatever you’re getting, it’s moving a different way each throw, and the idea is to get a lot of movement on it.”
As gratifying as it was to transform his game, Hake is more focused on transforming the Penguins.
YSU has struggled as of late, with a combined record of 46-119 the last three seasons. That doesn’t include 2020, when the team was off to a 7-7 start with wins over Houston and Pittsburgh. Hake is adamant that a change is on the forefront.
The 2015 Irish grad said he and fellow seniors Nick Caruso and Collin Floyd are doing all they can to instill a different mindset and work ethic to the rest of the team. They’re showing it through their approach and preach it on a daily basis to a young, talented group of underclassmen.
“Me and a couple of the other seniors just got together, realized that we had a legit chance to be good this year with the guys we’ve got coming in and the guys we got coming back,” Hake said. “We decided to set out to try to change things — change the mentality, change everything about our program to turn it into a winning program.
“We really got after it in that aspect,” he added. “We just wanted to go out on a good note, have a winning season. That was our goal from coming in last fall, just to turn it around and have a good season — win some baseball games.”
They’ll get one more chance, and Bertolini is excited to see what they can do with it.
“We were blessed with a great senior class and guys that really got it,” he said. “They didn’t want to just do well for themselves, but they wanted everyone else to really step their game up and have a great year. Joel, Nick Caruso and Collin Floyd, those guys did a fantastic job of really setting the tone. When you start to become a good program, you’re led from within, especially from the seniors.”