NEW CASTLE —
It was a quick slip of the tongue.
Alex Welker was rushing a bit before practice and made an honest mistake. He was thinking about two words, and one came out: snikes. A new brand of shoe and a pretty clever nickname.
“One day one of my coaches asked me why I didn’t have my spikes,” recalled Welker, a pitcher for the Neshannock High baseball team. “He said, ‘Did you get those new Nikes?’ I said, ‘Yeah, my snikes are in my bag.’ I got the words mixed up. And that’s all they call me now.”
With how he’s thrown the ball this season, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence his newfound moniker rhymes with strikes.
The junior right-hander has become one of the Lancers’ top pitchers. He holds a 6-1 record and a 2.09 ERA. He’s given up 23 hits in 371/3 innings and opponents are hitting .177 against him. Welker really has flourished in the playoffs. He didn’t allow a hit over four innings and struck out five in the Lancers’ 9-5 WPIAL Class A quarterfinal win over Chartiers Houston. He followed that up by yielding one run on three hits in a 6-1 victory over Our Lady of Sacred Heart in the semifinals last Monday. He struck out seven and walked two in his first complete game of the season.
The performance earned him Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
It took a year-long battle to reach this point. The Lancers (20-2), who face California (19-0) in the WPIAL Class AA championship game at 5:30 p.m. today, came into the season without a No. 2 starter. Senior Alex Strittmatter has been the staff ace for the past two seasons, but Neshannock coach Mike Kirkwood said at the beginning of the year that the Lancers would suffer an early exit in the playoffs if they didn’t develop a second option. Oh, how right he was.
Strittmatter was ejected during Neshannock’s quarterfinal game for barreling into the catcher, and in accordance with PIAA and WPIAL rules, he had to sit out the team’s semifinal game as well. That meant all the pressure fell on Welker, who had been in a close race with Mike Ross for the No. 2 role all season.
“After my first playoff game when I threw those four or five innings, (Kirkwood) made a speech at the end and let me know I was the guy,” Welker said. “It was actually pretty cool. Everyone was sitting around after the game and he announced it. He said I’m not the number-two pitcher, I’m the 1-A pitcher. It was kind of funny, but yeah, I was glad he said it. Maybe next year, I’ll be the 1.”
Welker, who starts in right field when he’s not pitching, split time during the regular season, working on pitching some days and on outfield drills and hitting on others. He channeled his focus to pitching in the final weeks leading up to the playoffs, and the results show it.
Kirkwood had enough confidence to start him in the quarterfinals, a decision he made to give Strittmatter a rest. If there was any lingering questions, Welker answered them by pitching four innings of no-hit baseball.
“When that happened (Strittmatter was tossed) in the top of the first, now it’s like, ‘OK, it’s your ball, it’s your game. Get it done,’ ” Kirkwood said. “And he really stepped it up and did a nice job. Going into that second game, I felt really comfortable with him based on what I’d seen and how he handled the pressure. He just did a phenomenal job.”
Welker’s progress this year occurred mostly because of his curveball and change-up, Kirkwood said. Welker throws his fastball in the low-to-mid 80s, and his command is solid, but adding those secondary pitches brought another dimension to his game and has kept hitters off balance.
“He was more of thrower than a pitcher,” Kirkwood said. “He’s developed into a pitcher now. Before, he was able to throw it hard, but you kinda didn’t know where it was going. Now, he’s understanding how to locate pitches and why you’re locating them instead of just throwing them.”
“We have a lot of intrasquad games against each other, and if you make a mistake against some of our kids, you’re going to get hit,” Kirkwood said. “And he’s done well in a lot of our intrasquad games, which I think gave him some confidence.”
There were other signs of improvement as well, and they also came from the same teammates who razzed him about his nickname.
“I always looked up to Alex (Strittmatter),” Welker said. “He always got to throw in the playoffs and I actually wanted to do it. And he was there along the way, the whole time helping me out. ... He really kept me calm. I would look over in the dugout to see what to do, and he would help me. I’m glad he was there.”
NEW CASTLE —
It was a quick slip of the tongue.
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