Clemson’s Leone turns to cut fastball


CLEMSON — Dominic Leone was searching for an answer.

As he was pulled from his start at Maryland last month, the Clemson pitcher reflected on his season, a campaign in which his ERA increased from 3.70 last season to 5.30 this spring. He knew he was being hit too hard and too often. Opponents’ bats were telling him he was leaving too many pitches up in the zone.

He also knows there is urgency for him to pitch like an ace with the Tigers’ No. 1 starter, Kevin Brady, out with a hamstring strain and questionable for the ACC tournament.

Leone thinks he might have found a solution to his struggles while watching baseball highlights on the couch of his apartment.

What the junior saw was pitcher after pitcher using cut fastballs to dominate major league batters. Leone liked the downward plane of the darting pitch and how batters struggled to identify it from a straight, four-seam fastball. He knew New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had made a Hall of Fame career with the pitch. But he also saw how other stars like Boston’s Jon Lester and Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee had successfully adopted and integrated the pitch.

The cut fastball, or cutter, has become the en vogue pitch in the majors. The pitch is proliferating now at the college level, and Leone hopes he becomes the latest beneficiary.

“I saw some of those highlights and thought, ‘Wow, that’s an effective pitch,’ ” Leone said. “I did more research on it. I looked up videos on YouTube and I kind of fell in love with it. I thought if I can develop this, it will be a solid, solid pitch.”

Leone will start against top-ranked Florida State (40-9, 21-3 ACC) at 6:30 p.m. today in the opener of a three-game series at Clemson (29-20, 14-10).

His new pitch will receive the ultimate test against the Seminoles, who lead the ACC in runs scored, averaging seven per game. FSU’s James Ramsey (.400) and Jayce Boyd are (.399) are first and second in the ACC in batting.

Leone said he first experimented with the cutter in a bullpen session prior to the Georgia Tech series, asking for pitching coach Dan Pepicelli’s appraisal.

“(The cutter) doesn’t look like anything other than a fastball as it gets deeper in the contact area,” Pepicelli said.“When the hitter starts making his decision, that’s when it makes its movement. Cutters are very hard to identify.”

Leone first threw the pitch in significant quantity last weekend against the College of Charleston.

Pepicelli said the pitch is not easy to throw. A pitcher must grip the ball with his thumb and index finger grasping opposite poles of the ball with his middle finger resting next to index finger. The throwing motion requires the pitcher to stay firm and on top of the ball. If pitchers roll off the pitch, it can create a hanging offspeed pitch.

But if Leone can master the cutter, it could transform him as a pitcher and give Clemson a better chance of playing deep into June.