Every Boston Red Sox fan remembers Keith Foulke.
He was the closer who flipped the underhand throw to first on Edgar Renteria’s grounder back to the mound for the final out of the 2004 World Series as the Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first championship in 86 years.
The former Major League All-Star and Reliever of the Year was known for his nasty circle changeup that was anywhere from 12 to 15 mph slower than his fastball.
That circle changeup has been important to the success of University of Maine sophomore righthander Colin Fitzgerald, who has evolved into the ace of the pitching staff this season. And the one who taught him the pitch was none other than Foulke.
Fitzgerald played on the Brockton Rox collegiate summer baseball team in Massachusetts last year with Kade Foulke, Keith Foulke’s son.
“So when we would work out, [Keith Foulke] helped me get a feel for the changeup and talked me through it,” Fitzgerald said. “He showed me how to grip it like a heater (fastball) and that’s what I’ve done. He is an awesome guy. He really likes to help players out.”
The key to throwing a changeup is maintaining the same arm speed you would use if you were throwing a fastball so that the hitter can’t detect a change in your delivery.
“It took a lot of work but slowly it came along and it has been a great pitch for me this year. It has helped me drastically,” Fitzgerald said. “I throw it a lot. It has allowed me to fight my way back into counts and also get ahead of guys in the count.”
Fitzgerald has been a model of consistency.
He has allowed two earned runs or less in seven of his nine starts and has averaged 5 2/3 innings in those seven starts.
He is 3-1 with a 4.17 earned-run average. If you take out his worst start, a game against Maryland in which he gave up 12 earned runs in three innings, his ERA is 2.12 over the other eight starts.
Fitzgerald also ditched his curveball for a slider.
“My curve was a big swing-and-miss pitch but it was also a big miss pitch,” said Fitzgerald, referring to the pitch missing the strike zone. “So I wanted something I could be more consistent with.”
He began tossing the slider to throwing partner Noah Lewis during fall and winter workouts and he gradually got more confidence in it.
“It was a lot better than my curveball so I stuck with it,” said Fitzgerald, who also has a four-seam fastball that he throws at an upper 80 to low 90 mph speed. “The slider has been a big swing-and-miss pitch for me and it has given me the ability to come back in counts.”
UMaine head coach Nick Derba agreed Fitzgerald’s curveball didn’t get many strikes last season.
“This year, he can throw his slider for strikes and he gets hitters to chase it,” Derba said. “His fastball has good life and he has been throwing his change-up more often.”
Derba also said Fitzgerald has matured dramatically from last year to this season.
“He can throw all three pitches for strikes or for an out pitch,” said senior catcher Ryan Turenne. “They are all plus pitches.”
Junior shortstop Jake Rainess added that Fitzgerald gets hitters off balance by mixing in breaking balls and changeups.
“I wouldn’t want to face that,” Rainess said of Fitzgerald’s pitching.
Fitzgerald had a rough freshman season, finishing with a 9.09 ERA and a 2-2 record over 34 2/3 innings. Opposing batters hit .336 against him and he struck out 32 and walked 26.
Batters are hitting .250 against Fitzgerald this season and he has 39 strikeouts and 24 walks over 49 2/3 innings.
“I was leaving my fastball over the middle of the plate or belt-high,” said the 6-foot-1, 200-pound native of Lititz, Pennsylvania. “But I’ve been commanding it high and low this season and have kept it out of the belt-high zone because that’s where hitters punish you. And I’ve had better command of my other pitches, too.”
Fitzgerald was a catcher until the summer after his sophomore year of high school.
“I was playing travel ball and I asked my coach if I could pitch. He thought it was a joke. I went out and threw two fastballs by a kid and then he ducked away from a curve that was called strike three.”
Another attribute that separates him from other pitchers is his competitive nature.
“He is one of those guys that when you go out to the mound to make a possible change, he will tell me he’s not leaving. I’d have to carry him off. He is a good number one pitcher in many ways,” Derba said.
Fitzgerald said it has been a lot of fun so far as he and his Black Bears are sitting atop the America East standings with an 11-1 conference record.
He said he has a lot of confidence because he has a team behind him that is averaging 8.4 runs per game and playing outstanding defense.
“I have the ultimate trust in them,” Fitzgerald said. “I feel if I go out there and throw strikes, the team will take care of the rest. If they keep swinging the bats like they are and playing great defense, we’re going to have a bunch of success.”