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Knight values his strikeouts

Every time River Ridge's Justin Roth rings up a batter, a Sarasota boy reaps the benefits.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 21, 2003

NEW PORT RICHEY -- It's not that Justin Roth has that ca-ching noise going through his head every time he strikes out a batter. But if the River Ridge senior did, it wouldn't be for the reasons you might think.

Roth, in his third season as the Knights' No. 1 pitcher, has extra incentive for strikeouts this season, and with 33 strikeouts in his first six appearances, the motivation is paying off for the Knights as well.

The 6-foot-2 left-hander decided to use baseball for his senior project, setting up a charity drive called "K's for Kids" in conjunction with the Make-a-Wish foundation. Roth has set up a pledge drive that allows donations to be made for each of his strikeouts in hopes of raising $5,000 for a Sarasota teenager battling a life-threatening illness.

"I think it's a great idea. It's the first time I've had one with a student using his team or his sport to raise money," said Janet Valles, who handles student projects for Make-a-Wish and is supervising Roth's charity drive.

As wishes go, Roth chose one he could identify with, selecting a 14-year-old boy from Sarasota named Michael who is battling a blood disorder called aplastic anemia and lists baseball among his hobbies. Michael's wish is to meet actor/comedian Adam Sandler, and when Roth is done striking out opponents this season, his prowess on the mound will help fly Michael to California to spend time with his favorite star.

"It gives you that extra push to do better out there," said Roth, who is on pace to easily pass his previous high of 59 strikeouts from last season. "For my senior project, I wanted to find a charity that would allow me to help out an individual, and this allowed me to see where the money I raised went."

To help promote the charity, Roth is using a Web site his family created two years ago to showcase his pitching talents, The site includes his statistics, offers links to newspaper stories about him and gives fans a chance to make a pledge, either in a lump sum or for each strikeout.

Roth entered his senior year 11-11 but opened the season 3-0, including two shutouts. He threw a two-hitter against Citrus and took a no-hitter into the final inning in a win against Tarpon Springs. Even with losses in his past two appearances, his ERA in 27-plus innings is 0.26, the second-lowest in the county.

The statistic he's most proud of, however, is his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was 28-2 before Tuesday's loss to Mitchell and now is 33-5. That's more than six strikeouts for every walk, a trait Roth admires in his favorite pitcher, Tom Glavine.

Roth is committed to his future in baseball. He has a personal pitching coach and watches tape of his starts about 10 times with instruction from Knights pitching coach Al Sorrentino. He also worked out with a baseball-oriented personal trainer, Tampa's Darren Liebman, and those workouts, for two-plus hours three times a week last summer, helped add 5 mph to his fastball, which now is clocked at 83-84 mph.

He wants to keep his options open in terms of being drafted each year, so he has worked out for several top state junior colleges, including Central Florida Community College and Chipola Junior College. And while he'll start his college career at a two-year school, he would like the chance to move from there to a strong state program such as Florida State or Florida.

He'll have a chance to showcase himself, for college scouts and charity donations, when River Ridge travels to Dunedin on Saturday to face the team ranked No. 1 in Class 4A and No. 8 nationally by Baseball America.

"It's either going to be a really great turnout where I can turn some heads or a long day," said Roth, who played with several Dunedin players in winning an under-15 national championship with the AAU's Tampa Tornadoes. "I expected to feel more pressure this season, being a senior, but I haven't been feeling it much at all so far."

The charity is a big part of his season, but his personal goals are, ultimately, more team-oriented. The past two seasons, he has pitched in the district tournament only to see his team eliminated in the first round, a trend he would like to change next month.

"I really want to come back and get a district win," said Roth, who said he had a 103-degree fever when he lost to Mitchell in last year's tournament.

"I didn't have a very good game last year, and you can use an excuse like, 'I was sick.' But I don't want to do that. I want to pitch in that game, and my goal is to win it."

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