BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Matt Litwicki is a commanding presence when he's standing on the mound, 60 feet and six inches away from home plate. He's 6-foot-2 and a rock-solid 220 pounds. Mix in those steely eyes and that intense bulldog mentality, and Indiana's closer has hitters shaking in their cleats.
He's got a killer fastball that's pushing 100 mph on many days. He's also got other pitches that will get you out, and he's grown and matured into this role after three years. A lot of hard work, in the weight room and the bullpen, has turned him into a star.
He just keeps getting better and better every day.
"The reality with Matt is that he's had continued growth throughout and it's really been just in the last month that he's throwing this way,'' Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said. "He's thrown hard before, but not obviously this hard. He is a strong young man, he's a bull. This fall he was probably 92-95, and then this winter it was, 'hey Matt hit 97 a few times' and now he's touching 99. It's all come together, and I could not be happier for anyone than I am for Matt.''
Litwicki is a sophomore from Dyer, Ind., who was a high school standout at Lake Central and was part of a staff that set a national record by throwing 62 consecutive scoreless innings. So he knows about perfect.
So far, he has appeared in seven games in 2021. In those 7 2/3 innings, he's yet to allow a run, and has given up just one hit and two walks. He has 11 strikeouts and four saves.
Indiana (15-8) has won all seven games that he's ended.
"The team gets excited when Matt gets up, because they know it's over,'' Mercer said. "He's been that good. He has put in the work, and he has earned the right to be as good as he is.''
Litwicki missed all of the 2018 season after having Tommy John surgery, and in 2019, it took him a while to get comfortable, which isn't uncommon for a freshman at the college level. He gave up runs in his first four appearances, but pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings in his final three games.
Last year, during the shortened 2020 season, he pitched 10 innings and allowed just one run. So since that rough start, he's now 20 1/3 innings and given up just that one earned run. That's an 0.44 earned run average.
The progress has been phenomenal.
"When I got here, I was a bigger guy, but I wasn't really a stronger guy. I really needed to enhance the physical side of things before I could become a key player here,'' Litwicki said earlier this week. "I needed to be stronger, but I also needed to be more of an athlete. I needed more elite athletic moves to really be the best I could be with my mechanics.
"We really worked on that, and over time, it's really paying off. But it's taken time, for sure. It's like night and day, how I can pitch now compared to how I was when I got here.''
Putting in the work has never been a problem for Litwicki, who enjoys the weight room as much as he enjoys the pitcher's mound. It takes a lot to get to this point. Adding strength is one thing, but getting his body and mechanics honed is another.
It's all arrived in unity now, all that work put in with Indiana pitching coach Justin Parker and the staff.
"It really is a matter of putting it all together, and coach Parker and I have talked about that a lot,'' Litwicki said. "This fall was a major learning period for me, putting everything together to get to the right release point, and being more athletic in getting there.
"Mechanics – all the mechanics – are really important. We've watched the hard throwers like (major leaguers) Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom, and we really dove into those mechanics to make me a more complete pitcher. And I think we're see the rewards from that this season so far.''
He hasn't had as many chances to close out games as he'd like this season, partly because of blowout wins, and partly some bad weather in the Midwest spring. He actually went 25 days between outings before closing out the two wins at Northwestern last weekend.
"Not pitching for three weeks wasn't too difficult. I know my role, and I've always got my guys' back too when they get the call,'' Litwicki said. "I get a lot of work done in the bullpen, keeping things tightened up, so I'm always ready. We get a lot of good work in during the week, too. We take those (mid-week) scrimmages seriously. It's nice too, because we get good feedback from our own hitters and what they're seeing. We learn a lot from that.''
It was good to be busy last weekend. He got the save in Friday's 5-4 win, allowing that first hit of the season but then retiring the side on just 14 pitches. He pitched a perfect ninth on Sunday in the 4-0 win on just 11 pitches.
"I threw twice last weekend and I felt fine. It wasn't much in either game, really. I'm always ready when called upon,'' Litwicki said. "We haven't really done much of it yet, but I'm ready to come in in the eighth inning too, if they need me. I'm looking forward to getting a couple of six-out saves, to be honest with you. We're all trained to go more than one inning.''
Last year in the COVID-interrupted season, Indiana had four saves, but they came from Connor Manous (2), Braden Scott and McCade Brown. Litwicki wasn't in that role. But this offseason, Brown moved into the starting rotation and Manous has been hurt. The job was there for the taking, and Litwicki grabbed it with both hands.
And he's never looked back.
"I sort of fell into the closer role this offseason, which was a blessing for me. But I love that role, and I think I was ready for it,'' he said. I'm a pretty intense guy, and I like being right in the middle of those pressure-packed moments.
"I feel really good right now. The weight room has always been crucial to me. That's where I've changed the most. When I got here, I could barely stand on one foot. I've gotten stronger, and by improving my mechanics, I've created a lot more power out there on the mound.''
Weekend series with Minnesota
The weather has forced a change in the schedule this weekend. Indiana and Minnesota are playing a doubleheader on Friday now, starting at 1 p.m. ET at Bart Kaufman Field. They'll play the series finale at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday.
Tommy Sommer will start the opener for Indiana. He's 4-1 on the season, with a 3.32 earned run average. The second game is scheduled to being at 4 p.m. ET
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