Out of all the bad things that happened to Boston College baseball on April 10, 2015, Nick Sciortino’s error was probably the least memorable.
After suffering under the weight of 110.6 inches of snow for a couple months, Shea Field had finally cleared and dried enough to give baseball its home ACC opener, three weeks overdue. Yet instead of a cheery spring afternoon, it was a chilly, windy day of baseball. And it didn’t get better from there.
Friday night starter Mike King cruised once through Clemson’s order at home before the Tigers figured him out. Clemson then scored in each successive inning, building up a double-digit lead and crushing BC by a score of 11-6. On a longer timeline, this was also the day Chris Shaw, BC’s best bat last season, broke his hamate bone and missed the next three weeks of the season, a pivotal stretch during which the Eagles were swept in back-to-back weekends.
And then there was Sciortino’s day behind the plate—arguably his worst of 2015. In the top of the fourth, after back-to-back doubles and a single had put a pair of runs on the board for Clemson, Chase Pinder tried to steal second. Sciortino came up throwing but sailed the ball over the head of Blake Butera at second, allowing Pinder to move on to third.
That was the error Nick Sciortino made in 2015. The only one.
And even then, King bailed out his battery mate, striking out the man at the plate to strand Pinder on third. It wasn’t often that Sciortino needed to be bailed out last season. With his cannon of an arm, Sciortino helped his pitchers by throwing out 17 runners last season, tied for fourth-most in the ACC, and another 17 down at Cape Cod this summer, which led the league. No, more typically it was the other way around.
Such as the very next afternoon.
After taking the thrashing Friday night, BC handed the ball to John Gorman for the second game. The senior walked the leadoff man on eight pitches, then gave up a seeing-eye single to right, putting Clemson in a place to pick up right where it left off.
That is, until Sciortino spotted Eli White taking a hefty lead off second. The error he had made the night before throwing to second didn’t deter him. He relayed a sign to Johnny Adams at short, and, on the next pitch, he fired the ball to second base, where Adams laid down the tag before White could dive back safely. One out.
Just moments later, Steven Duggar took off for second, daring Sciortino to make the 127-foot throw again. Sciortino did. Two down.
Gorman still hadn’t quite settled in, surrendering a walk to the third man in the order. The cleanup spot fell to Reed Rohlman, who had smacked a pair of doubles on Friday. Instead of trying to just throw a strike once the count reached 3-2 and risk another blast to a gap, Gorman trusted his catcher, hurling a ball in the dirt for Rohlman to chase. He did, and Sciortino handled it from there, hucking a throw down to first to end the inning.
By averting the potential crisis in the first, Sciortino helped his starter get through 5 1/3 on a day he didn’t nearly have his best stuff. That lift was just enough for BC’s offense, which rallied in the absence of Shaw to put up eight runs and even the series. Even though the only offensive spark Sciortino provided that game was an inconsequential base hit, he was as valuable a part of the win as anyone else, as any starter who knew Sciortino would say.
“It’s complete trust,” BC head coach Mike Gambino said of his pitching staff and their primary catcher. “Trust that he’s going to keep them focused, and that he’s going to get them through stuff.”
The staff has reason to trust him. The sophomore, who started 43 of BC’s 65 games at catcher last season, had 381 chances to make a defensive play. Besides that one throw to second that got away, he made all of the other 380, giving him a .997 fielding percentage. That was the best of any ACC fielder with at least 200 opportunities last season.
But he didn’t start out as one of the top defensive catchers in the conference. At this point, Sciortino can still say he has spent the majority of his life at shortstop.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”He knew he wasn’t ready, and we knew he wasn’t ready, but we were investing in what we believed could be a special player.” cite=”Mike Gambino” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
Sciortino started in Little League as any kid does in baseball, bouncing around the diamond to different positions along the way. When he was 11, he saw his first regular time behind the plate for a travel team.
Yet long before the experience proved enough for Sciortino to learn the finer points of the role, coaches threw him back to short, where they saw his strong arm and good hands fitting best on the field. From then on through his first couple years at high school, he stuck to the infield, excelling along the way to become a star in his hometown of Barrington, N.J.
By hitting .491 with a pair of homers his sophomore year as the shortstop/second baseman for Haddon Heights High School, he made his way onto the radar of college coaches. On perfectgame.org, Sciortino was ranked as the 18th-best prospect in New Jersey of the Class of 2013—but still not as a catcher.
“I thought I was going to play college baseball as a middle infielder,” Sciortino said.
As his stock rose, so did the attention paid to him at competitive camps. But he wasn’t the only one with the skill to make it to the next level. His speed was the biggest problem—he recorded a 7.26-second 60-yard dash his sophomore year in high school. That’s a time that can be improved over the years, but anything over seven is a disadvantage among the best of the best competing in top-of-the-line camps.
Like, for example, Tri-State Arsenal, a camp situated in the Northeast that has sent dozens of kids on to the next level, including Mike Trout. Fortunately for Sciortino, a former assistant coach for Virginia Tech also regularly showed up at the camp over the winter: Mike Gambino.
Sciortino was just 13 when BC baseball’s current head coach first met him. And Sciortino made an early impression.
“I loved him even back then,” Gambino said.
A former infielder at BC and in the minor leagues, Gambino had noticed Sciortino’s lack of speed at the infield position that requires the most quickness and athleticism. Yet, he had also seen Sciortino’s other qualities: a strong arm, quick hands, and a growing sense of leadership on the diamond.
“So I start looking at that and I’m like, why can’t he catch?” Gambino said.
Gambino spoke to Joe and Bob Barth, the father-and-son combo that runs Arsenal, about getting Sciortino behind the plate to catch a bullpen session over the winter of his junior year. They liked it. With Sciortino’s high-school mind and muscle memory firmly attuned to the role of an infielder, though, the results of his catching reprisal weren’t quite what either guy had in mind.
“He stunk,” Gambino said last week, laughing as he thought back on it. “I had a pretty good relationship with him at that point, so he came up and talked to me afterward and I’m like, ‘Man, you stunk.’”
As a good-natured, confident kid, Sciortino laughed along with him. Gambino wasn’t finished, though. It took a little explaining about where he was coming from, but Gambino eventually left it with Sciortino to keep working on it, and he’d be back to check out his progress in June after Sciortino’s high school season.
And then, he still stunk. But …
“He was so much better,” Gambino recalled. Better enough that the coach asked him what he thought about fully committing to the change. Sciortino said he was ready, and Gambino recruited him to BC as a catcher.
That’s where the real learning began.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”Nick is a sponge, he wants to get better everyday.” cite=”Jim Foster” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
When Sciortino arrived at Chestnut Hill in the fall of 2013, he was part of a trio of players tasked to replace Matt Pare, a catcher who served as captain, had the honor of wearing No. 8 to honor Peter “Sonny” Nictakis, and led the Eagles in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and RBIs his senior year. Sciortino didn’t have time to worry about leading the team in an offensive category—he just had to learn how to catch.
“There are so many things that I thought I knew, but I was five steps behind,” Sciortino said.
While Gambino had to focus on filling out the rest of the Eagles’ lineup with guys who could begin competing against the best college pitching in the country, the main responsibility of developing Sciortino fell to Scott Friedholm, the pitching coach who came to BC with Gambino in 2010.
The two started from scratch, first re-teaching Sciortino how to catch the ball as a catcher. At that point, it was no longer about just making sure the pitch ends up in the glove. Sometimes it’s better to block it, sometimes it’s better to tilt the glove a little bit to the right to nab the corner, sometimes you need to start popping up mid-pitch to gun a ball down to second base. Sciortino had to learn it all, and he had to figure out much of it on the fly—in BC’s third game of the year, senior Nate LaPointe suffered a career-ending knee injury, and Sciortino entered that game to replace him.
For the rest of the year, he and sophomore catcher Stephen Sauter split time behind the plate, though Sciortino saw 10 more games of action than his partner. As Gambino has demonstrated numerous times over the past five years, he isn’t afraid to play less-experienced guys he feels will benefit in the long-term.
That doesn’t mean it always worked perfectly. Sciortino hit just .179 during that first year, and four of his 12 hits that season all came in the same game against Pittsburgh.
“He knew he wasn’t ready, and we knew he wasn’t ready, but we were investing in what we believed could be a special player,” Gambino said.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”There are so many things that I thought I knew, but I was five steps behind.” cite=”Nick Sciortino” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
Once Sciortino had the basics down, the coaches were able to push him further, getting more specific exposure to the innumerable situations that can arise. One catching drill they started to do, for example, involved a play with dirt-ball reads. A machine throws breaking balls in the dirt, which the guys had to block in the dirt, look the runner back at second and throw out the batter-runner at first.
“Scores’ freshman year, he didn’t know that play existed,” Gambino said. “It was like blowing his mind freshman year. But now he’s built his database.”
As Sciortino progressed throughout the season, he became more and more comfortable behind the plate, working countless hours in practice to build up that database. Once he entered his sophomore year with a new pitching coach in Jim Foster, it didn’t take long for the two to get on the same page.
“Nick is a sponge, he wants to get better everyday, you can’t give him too much information, he takes it all in and uses it to get better and help us win games,” Foster said in an email.
Every guy up and down the staff likely owes some part of his development over the past season or two to an observation from Sciortino, gained either through watching them in practice or in the hours of film-watching and meetings he takes part in prior to and during a series. Now, for the first time this year, he’ll get the chance to pass that knowledge down the next man in line.
Right now, that’s Gian Martellini, one of the few position players in a pitching-heavy freshman class this year. He’s the man Gambino sees as his catcher of the future. While Sciortino had to work his way through innumerable in-game mistakes to reach the level he’s at today, Martellini won’t be rushed. When he went into practice a couple weeks ago and BC did that dirt-ball read drill, he watched Sciortino and Sauter handle the drill with ease. It was the first time he had ever seen it.
Now, Martellini can focus on hitting as a designated hitter during the games this year and more gradually build up his catching prowess without the sacrifice of as much in-game learning. Gambino also no longer has to make the constant decisions about putting a guy out on the diamond before his time has come. For everything that Sciortino had to learn the hard way, he can now pass it on to his mentee.
Sciortino isn’t the only example of this—Joe Cronin has similar stories about that type of improvement—but as the starting catcher, and now also a captain this season, no other player has the same capacity to influence his peers, especially with that big crop of freshman arms.
Even as he prepares to take on an even bigger role this season, Sciortino isn’t worried about being perfect. He can’t be: he already made an error in BC’s opener against Northern Illinois last Friday. Even though he’d like to keep improving at the plate, his attention isn’t on himself anymore.
“My main focus is helping these freshmen get through,” Sciortino said. “I remember when I was a freshman, walking into Miami. Wherever we play, they’re going to have that same feeling, so kind of slow them down a little bit.”
There’s no one better to help get everyone caught up.