CLEMSON —They were separated by 1,200 miles in the spring of 2009. They had never met. But two pitchers conducted the same rare experiment, independently.
Three years ago at Allen Community College (Kan.), freshman Aaron Burke felt the dream of being a college baseball career slipping away. His 80-mph pitches were being pounced on by hitters at the junior college level.
At the same time far to the east, Bishop England High’s Ryan Connolly was invited to a college baseball camp where an instructor asked him to alter his delivery. The hard truth was he lacked the velocity to succeed with a conventional pitching motion.
Both pitchers turned to a submarine delivery, an unconventional, underhand throwing style similar to fast-pitch softball pitching mechanics.
Last spring, their paths intersected at Coastal Carolina. The results have been spectacular.
Connolly and Burke have helped Coastal Carolina compile the nation’s second-best team ERA (2.53) entering this weekend’s Columbia Regional, where the Chanticleers open against Clemson at noon Friday. Burke and Connolly have combined to win or save 30 of the Coastal Carolina’s 41 victories this season.
There are only a handful of true submarine-style pitchers in professional baseball, but the motion has salvaged the careers of two Chanticleers pitchers and the program’s season.
Allen Community College coach Valis McLean is a “different kind of cat,” Burke said. McLean has a doctorate in sports psychology. He is willing to try different things.
After watching McLean struggle as a freshman, Burke suggested an extreme makeover — he wanted the young pitcher to completely change his delivery.
Burke didn’t know much about the submarine style of pitching. He hesitated. Few pitchers employed it. He knew former Oakland A’s pitcher Chad Bradford had had success but that was the limit of his knowledge. But he was desperate.
When using the submarine style, a pitcher’s throwing hand comes so near the ground the knuckles occasionally scrape the surface of the pitching mound. McLean worked on the motion all summer. The back of his hand brushed the mound so often his knuckles were constantly being cut and scraped. Burke said he’s developed permanent scabs on his hand.
“It (scraped) a lot when I first started,” Burke said of his hand. “It doesn’t much anymore because I have a lot better feel for it.”
The next spring, he set an NJCAA record for lowest ERA (0.58). Coastal Carolina assistant coach Kevin Schnall happened to be recruiting the area and only needed to see six pitches from Burke to be sold. Back at Coastal, the submarine style was already making an impact.
Two years earlier, Connolly received a letter to attend a Coastal Carolina baseball camp after his junior year at Bishop England. Coastal pitching coach Drew Thomas noticed Connolly’s funky sidearm slider in addition to his over-the-top delivery and called the pitcher aside.
“Coach Thomas goes ‘Can you also throw a fastball sidearm?,’ ” Connolly remembered. “I told him I’d try. After he saw me pitch, he said I threw just as fast sidearm. He asked if I was willing to switch and come play for him. I told him I’d give it a try. It’s worked out since then.”
Connolly posted a 2.15 ERA in 2010, a 2.79 ERA in 2011 and a 2.11 ERA this spring.
Burke is second in the nation with a 1.18 ERA this season.
The mood around the Coastal Carolina baseball complex was somber last month after the news circulated that ace Josh Conway, a projected high pick in the Major League Baseball draft, would miss the rest of the season with a torn elbow ligament.
To fill the void, Coastal turned to its two submarine-style pitchers. As unorthodox as their throwing motions were, so would be their roles.
Connolly has thrown a career-high 72 innings this year after throwing 42 innings last spring. Burke has logged 761/3 innings. They are unusually high totals for college relief pitchers.
Besides deception — a right-handed submariner’s pitch looks like it is coming from behind a right-handed batter — another advantage the submarine style offers is resiliency.
The mechanics place less stress on elbows and shoulders than conventional pitching motions.
“It’s more like softball,” Connolly said. “I think the past several outings I’ve gone six and five innings and I can throw the next day.”
Thomas offered another analogy.
“It’s very similar to the golf swing,” Thomas said. “You are basically adding a step to the golf swing.”
Thomas has shelved traditional bullpen roles and throws Burke and Connolly at any point in the game.
“Sometimes it can be a save situation in the fifth inning, sixth inning, seventh inning where you feel like the game might be getting away from you a little bit,” Thomas said. “You bring your best guy out and shut that down.”
Whatever role they serve this weekend, they’ll have made an impact in an unorthodox way.