NEW ORLEANS — Tony Rizzotti didn’t come to Tulane to be an ace or to earn superstar status.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound pitcher just wanted to be back on a baseball field after a pair of knee surgeries sidelined him for nearly two years. Those procedures prompted a transfer from TCU to Grayson Community College and eventually led him to Tulane last fall.
“It’s been a pretty strange trip,” Rizzotti said. “But I just wanted to get healthy and find a place that worked for me and where I could help fit into a staff.”
Now he’s set to throw the opening pitch of the Green Wave’s season at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Sam Houston State at the Texas State Tournament in San Marcos, Texas.
It wasn’t the way Rizzotti or Tulane coach Rick Jones scripted it when he signed with Tulane, especially considering the Green Wave return all but one pitcher from last year’s staff. But as Jones watched pitch after pitch in fall practice and preseason instrasquads, the 20th year Tulane coach simply couldn’t deny his eyes and penciled Rizzotti into the role of opening night starter.
“I don’t want to put more on his shoulders than he can handle, but he has been so good in fall and preseason that he has merited it,” Jones said. “He has been a consistent strike thrower, and he has handled himself with an amazing amount of maturity and discipline.
“His fastball is consistently between 92-94 (mph) but he has touched 96 on occasion. He also has a very late breaking, tight slider that he can throw for strikes. And (pitching) coach (Chad) Sutter has taught him a split-fingered pitch to throw off-speed, and he’s throwing that around 83 or 84 with a good split.”
While Jones stopped short of naming Rizzotti his ace, saying he’s going to evaluate the Friday night spot throughout the first few weeks, he admitted to being hopeful Rizzotti will take the reins and provide Tulane with its first dominant starting pitcher since Shooter Hunt was named to consecutive All-Conference USA teams in 2007 and 2008.
Hunt’s last season was also the Green Wave’s last NCAA Tournament appearance. Tulane’s four-year postseason drought is the program’s longest since it first reached the tournament in 1979 and is a significant drop off from its gold standard of 12 appearances between 1994-2008 under Jones.
Although the Green Wave finished 38-20 and third place in the Conference USA standings last year, its RPI slipped below No. 60 beacause of a weak nonconference schedule and some critical late season losses. Tulane hopes a jolt from Rizzotti at the top of the rotation can help it improve upon the 16-16 record it has compiled on the opening night of C-USA series over the past four seasons.
“He has the ability to be one of those guys that propel you through a weekend by beating the other team’s best guy, and I think he has the makeup for it,” Jones said. “There are places he’s needed to get better, and he’s improved in them, which shows me not only is he talented, but he’s got a great work ethic.”
It’s not as if Rozzitti is a late-bloomer though. As a high school prospect in Arlington, Texas, the right-hander was drafted in the 28th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Colorado Rockies.
Brennan Middleton, Tulane’s leading hitter in 2012 and former Parkview Baptist product, faced Rizzotti several times over the past few months and said he understands why Green Wave coaches and professional scouts have fawned over Rizzotti’s performance on the mound.
“We expect big things from Tony, and I say that as someone who has had to try to hit against him in practice,” Middleton said. “He comes right at you early in the count with his fastball but has those two or three other pitches he can throw to keep you guessing. It’s amazing for him to be this consistent with the type of stuff he has, because it’s so hard to face.”
Rizzotti leads what Jones considers to be his deepest pitching staff in years, which includes former Catholic High School standout Alex Byo, who will take the mound on Saturday against Sam Houston State. Jones is still unsure who still start against Missouri State on Sunday, juggling through options including Kyle McKenzie, David Napoli, Andrew Reeves and Brady Wilson.
But revitalizing Tulane’s baseball program back into a College World Series will likely require a boost from the top of the rotation, and the Green Wave are anxious to find out if Rizzotti can provide it.
“We have a lot of options right now, and we’re playing more midweek games than usual this year, so it’s great to have that pitching depth that we have,” Jones said. “But we haven’t had that dominant Friday-night guy in a while, and I think you can with big without it, but it’s certainly easier to win big with it.”