Prep's Roberts emerges as Mr. Baseball candidate

BOSTON -– Going into Tuesday’s start against BC High, St. John’s Prep lefthander Evan Roberts had given up just two runs all year, both earned, to go along with a perfect 7-0 record.

Roberts is the hands-down choice for top pitcher in the Catholic Conference, widely regarded as the most competitive baseball league in the state. The crafty lefthander has made a living this year of keeping some of the state’s best hitters off-balanced, working efficiently and rarely finishing any of his complete games shutouts with more than 70 or 80 pitches.

While he kept his pitch count down once again against BC High on Tuesday afternoon, his pinpoint control went missing in the fifth inning, where Roberts faced 13 batters in the frame. BC High scored four runs in the inning, twice as many runs as Roberts had given up all year to date.

BC High went on to win the game 4-3, putting themselves in the conversation for a spot in the Super 8 tournament.

“Runners got on base and that’s bound to happen, but once they get on base I just need to nip it in the bud. I wasn’t commanding my off-speed pitches, I either left them up or threw them in the dirt. And that happens, it was all mental I think,” Roberts said Tuesday. “They’re a really good team..I attribute that to them, but I could have mentally strapped it in a little bit better.”

The loss brought Roberts to 7-1 on the season, with a 0.96 ERA and a WHIP of 0.60 to go along with 42 strikeouts and just seven walks. After the game, St. John’s Prep coach Dan Letarte called the fifth inning “the only bad inning he’s had in two years.”

“The tough part with him is that he mixes it up so well. All of the sudden the second time through he went to that off-speed stuff,” BC High coach Norm Walsh said. “He’s as good as you’re going to see at the high school level in terms of being a pitcher. You’ll see guys who throw a lot harder, but in terms of being a pitcher he’s as good as it gets.”

Roberts will play college baseball next year at Davidson College as a recruited walk-on. At St. John’s Prep he has watched closely some of the state’s top players who came before him in recent years -- stars like Notre Dame draft hopeful Pat Connaughton, 2013 ESPN Boston Mr. Baseball Brandon Bingel, and Northeastern righty fireballer Dustin Hunt.

Connaughton was at Prep’s practice on Wednesday to throw batting practice and talk to the players. Letarte and the rest of the Eagles have watched closely as Bingel had a strong freshman season at Bryant and Hunt became one of Northeastern’s best pitchers as a freshman, posting a 2.79 ERA in 79 innings pitched.

“Evan’s a really good role model for kids, and you don’t use that term anymore for high school kids usually, but he is. I think it helps all our kids work,” Letarte said. “Brandon Bingel did that last year, Dustin Hunt did that last year. You can see how Dustin is doing, he’s dominating at Northeastern. Evan listened to Dustin, Evan picked his brain.”

If there is anything Roberts has learned from those who came before him, it’s how to come back from a tough game.

“I run it off, I come back tomorrow for practice and I rally the troops," he said. "I have to lead the team, I’ll figure out myself, but as a team we just need to keep focusing...As a senior captain and a leader on the team, I feel like I have to lead by example and keep competing every time I go out.”

Roberts has perfectionist-like standards for himself on the mound, spreading his confidence and competitiveness to a young team who few expected to spend a majority of the year as the top-ranked team in ESPN Boston’s statewide poll.

After Prep lost so many pieces off of a team that was considered to be the state’s most talented last year, Roberts spent a sizable amount of his off-season working out at Route 1 Sportsplex with trainer Chris McKenna and fellow Prep ace Justin Snyder, as well as some throwing with senior catcher and Northeastern commit Mike Geaslen.

“The work I did with Chris really prepared me for the season,” Roberts said. “He worked a lot on the legs and a lot of pitcher-specific workouts. I can feel that in the seventh inning. In the summer I might have worn down a little bit, but now I can go just as hard in the sixth and seventh inning as I can in the first and second.”

The off-season regimen has made Roberts a player of routine and focus. Minutes after falling to BC High he was already discussing what he needed to do better in his next start: throw more first pitch strikes.

“The best pitch in a game is a first pitch strike, so whatever pitch it is I think I can mix it up pretty good on my own," Roberts said. "I go fastball inside, change up away, curve balls. I try to be as crafty as I can to get people out because I know I’m not going to blow anybody away with my fastball."

At 15-3, the Eagles have two more games before the postseason, where they are as near of a lock as a team can be for the Super 8 –- with a resume full of wins over ranked teams. Prep will have as tough a duo as there will be in the postseason in Roberts and Snyder, and in a tournament where starting pitching could very well be the deciding factor, Letarte said he has little concern over how Roberts will come back in his next start.

“When you go up 3-0 [in a game] you just don’t feel like [Roberts] is going to give up those runs. He really knows how to pitch," he said. "Some kids are throwers, but he’s a pitcher –- he just knows how to get people out.”