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A work of art

River Ridge sophomore Justin Roth's serious approach to pitching has earned him the top spot in the Knights' rotation.

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Justin Roth knows art when he sees it.

Or rather, when the umpire sees it: A called third strike.

The River Ridge sophomore believes his calling, pitching, is more of an art form than anything else. The mound is his easel, the ball and his left arm are his medium and the space between the letters and the knees his canvas.

"It's like an art," Roth said. "It's just one of the most important parts of the game, and it's interesting how every different thing you do affects the outcome of your pitch. If you drop your shoulder or do anything differently everything changes.

"And if you do everything right, the ball will go where you want it to go."

This season, thanks to years of preparation and study, the ball has mostly gone where Roth and the Royal Knights have needed it to go.

Despite his underclassman status, Roth entered the season as the No. 1 pitcher and has not disappointed, leading 13-7 River Ridge with four consecutive wins before dropping his last two decisions to Land O'Lakes and East Lake, respectively the top teams in the Sunshine Athletic Conference and Class 5A, District 9.

He has a compiled a 2.46 ERA, 35 strikeouts and a save with a combination of off-speed pitches: an 82 mph changeup, a backdoor slider and a curveball.

Coach Jack Homko didn't fret before the season about handing the top of his rotation to a young gun who was his No. 3 starter a season ago and a freshman. Since the age of 13, all Roth has done is study the art of pitching.

His pitching coach is Tampa instructor Ricky Ware. Roth is also an avid reader, as long as the subject is pitching. The book he is currently reading is Pitch like a Pro by Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone ($10.36 on Amazon.com; ships within 24 hours). It's in his locker in school.

Roth also remembers how Cy Young winner Tom Glavine's biography (None but the Braves: A Pitcher, a Team, a Champion; $20 on Amazon.com; ships within 24 hours) recently helped him hone a pitch.

"He knew something that helped me develop my changeup a bit," Roth said. "One time, he was shagging balls during spring training and he picked up the ball differently, and when he threw it he noticed a change. So when he throws it now he uses all those different pressure points and everything."

Roth's age has not been a factor this season. Homko noted he's still too young to understand the pressures around him. Although, with eight seniors on the team, Homko said he shouldn't feel the added pressure of being the leader. Roth said he was nervous when the season started, but was actually more nervous last season.

"I kind of was in the beginning of this season," he said. "But last year, there was more weirdness because I was playing varsity for the whole year. I got a couple of starts but I felt more pressure because I was just a freshman.

"I feel better because I have more starts now."

Of course, Roth's best attribute is that he's a lefty. These days left-handers might be a bit more common in the county than in year's past, but the mystique of the lefty is still potent. Roth wants to pitch at the next level, and left-handers are always in demand.

"It's the movement on the ball, and being able to throw it outside and hit the corners more often than rightys," Roth said. "You get more advantages around the plate than you would if you're right-handed."

Homko said the lefty advantage is a strong one, and one the coach hopes will benefit the Royal Knights for years to come.

"Most people aren't very confident about going up against left-handers," Homko said. "He's only a 10th-grader, he's going to get strong, he's going to fill out.

"With his knowledge of pitching, with the help his parents can give him and hopefully whatever help we can give hin, he can continue to develop."

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