The Kings Of The Hill

Photo by Robin Weinstein.
Photo by Robin Weinstein.
Photo by Robin Weinstein.

It was August 2009 when Andrew Grann moved to New Paltz, opened the door to his first dorm room and began unpacking his things.

Last week, Grann walked off the mound at Red Dragon field in Oneonta, N.Y., for the fortieth and final time in a Hawks uniform, and five years ago felt like yesterday.

“Unbelievable that it was that long ago,” the fifth-year right-handed ace of the Hawks pitching staff said.

Fourth-year pitcher Chris Pyz was in the dugout that Sunday — watching Grann pitch — as he’s done for the last four years, keeping a pitch tendencies chart, meticulously recording every one of Grann’s pitches.

“It went way too fast,” Pyz said. “You always hear that from older guys, but that advice goes through one ear and out the other. I know it’s cliché. But it’s true.”

In his last collegiate appearance, Grann started Sunday’s game against the Oneonta Red Dragons, the first in a doubleheader, allowing three runs and four hits over 5 1/3 innings of work, taking the loss 3-2.

“I didn’t have my best stuff, but enough to get through almost six,” Grann said. “A couple unlucky pops and 2-1 turned into 3-2 real quick and real late. And like that it was all over.”

The game, the team’s chances at a bid into the SUNYAC tournament and the college careers of both Grann and Pyz came to and end.

In four years together, the two combined for a total of 80 appearances, compiled 370 1/3 innings pitched and a combined ERA of 3.46.

Pyz finished with a 9-6 overall record. He made 16 starts, including three complete games. Over 131 innings batters hit a combined .269 and he finished with a career ERA of 3.85.

Grann, who ended his career with the Hawks as the school’s all-time wins leader with 17, threw a total of 239 1/3 innings. His batting average against was .240 and his ERA 3.20. Grann never had a season where he allowed more hits than innings pitched.

“[He’s] the only person I don’t mind coming up to me [immediately] after a game, giving me constructive criticism,” Grann said. “If it was anybody else, there’d be some f bombs and I’d tell them to get out of my face.”

Both are 5’10” with similar builds, but took contrasting approaches that garnered similar results.

Pyz, a deceptive thrower with a funky arm angle and delivery, relied on movement and pitched to contact. He liked to work backwards, never apprehensive about throwing a curveball in a 3-0 count. Grann, a hard thrower, thrived attacking hitters and canvassing corners. Pyz had a knack for getting out of tough situations. Grann wouldn’t find himself in tough situations.

“Chris is more like a robot. He’d plow through things,” Head Coach Matt Righter said. “Andrew is much more in touch with his feelings and his body.”

Righter said the personality differences warranted distinct techniques to how he coached each: if Pyz struggled, he’d remind him to focus on the target. If Grann was off keel, he’d ask if he could feel his fingers on top of the baseball.

Pitching lends itself to excessive downtime between starts. While position players create camaraderie through teamwork between the foul lines on game day, Pyz and Grann’s mutual respect grew from time shared at practice and at the gym, in the bullpen and from the sidelines where for years they witnessed each other’s week in preparation for their respective starts.

“As a pitcher, practices can get tedious,” Pyz said. “There’s only so much you can do, because you can’t throw every day.”

Pyz said he got antsy during practices where he and other pitchers would have to hit ground balls to infielders because it was during those sunken moments when it was difficult to find competition.

It’s competition that Pyz and Grann play for.

“No matter who’s in the [batter’s] box…the challenge…try and beat me,” Pyz said. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”

Between starts, both designed routines to keep focused on the challenge ahead: their next start. They scheduled a day for long toss, a day for a bullpen session, a day for flat ground throwing and so on, week after week. The challenge was keeping focused.

“You’ve got to be the most mentally tough guy on the field,” Pyz said.

Sacrificing playing every day to become a collegiate pitcher was a decision the two had to make early.

Pyz and Grann were two of millions of American kids that played little league baseball.

But with age comes increased competition. Of the millions who were involved in one of the most popular youth sports in the country, roughly a quarter continue on to play high school ball. Of that population, only five percent reach the college level. At each step, competition stiffens and more kids are squeezed out of the game — like a pyramid, there’s finite space at the top.

“[I decided to] focus on baseball and hopefully it would get me somewhere,” he said. “It bought me an extra eight years, so I’ll take it.”

Pyz came to a similar decision his freshman year of high school.

“If I could, I would’ve played three sports in college. I’m competitive with anything I do,” Pyz said. “But I didn’t have a future in basketball or football. I’m not six-foot.”

Despite being quality hitters in high school, it became necessary to once again be selective. To reach at the next level of competition, they would have to narrow in on one skill set, and that was pitching.

When the two joined the pitching staff in 2011, all the team’s starting pitchers were first-years and second-years.

“We were always competing,” Grann said.

For the better part of their time on the team, the two pitched in the shadow of 2013 graduate Chris Chismar.

In 2013, Chismar and Grann together threw more than the rest of the staff combined, leading the team to a No. 3 seed in the SUNYAC tournament.

“Any time you lose a kid throwing 90 plus with a filthy curveball, it’s going to hurt,” Grann said.

Eager to crack the starting rotation, Pyz played a significant role, compiling four saves coming out of the bullpen in 2012. Pyz’s patience paid off when he joined the rotation of Chismar and Grann the next year.

“It was great to be in the company of those guys,” he said.

Pyz said he knew teams would underestimate him, simply because he wasn’t either of the aforementioned players.

“I knew teams would say, ‘they’ve got Chismar and Grann, and this other kid Pyz,’ they thought they could get an easy win every week when I threw,” he said.

Grann said once Pyz jumped in the rotation, it was a whole other competition.

Pyz said one of the best feelings of his college career was when he, Grann and Chismar led the team to season sweeps of Brockport, Oswego and Plattsburgh.

“Those bus trips home were great,” he said.

But the Hawks were upset in the playoffs, losing games to Oswego and Fredonia. Pyz was supposed to pitch the next game, had they won.

That bus ride, Pyz said, “was a long one.”

The 2014 season saw a new head coach and a changed pitching staff. Anchored by seniors Grann and Pyz, it was a largely young and inexperienced group.

Righter said the work ethic and calmness of Grann and Pyz, qualities that reveal good pitching as well as good leadership, helped to balance the staff. The New Paltz team ERA was 3.87, second best in the SUNYAC conference.

Instead of relying too heavily on one or two pitchers, Righter made it a priority to build a solidified bullpen — where players would be prepared to enter games in unconventional situations, in the middle of counts and for specific match-ups.

“Earlier, it was more like, we’ve got these guys Chismar, Grann and Pyz, who will carry the staff with majority of innings,” Pyz said. “Now we had a wider variety of guys that played different roles.”

This was exemplified by the April 19 game against Plattsburgh, where Pyz went one inning. Six pitchers followed him and were able to capture a victory.

“The bullpen really picked me up that game,” Pyz said.

But the team finished the year with a 6-12 record in conference play, and missed the playoffs.

Pyz said the end of the season and playing career has left a void.

“I always practiced and worked out with meaning,” Pyz said. “I always had a purpose, a determination to lift more, work out harder, to be better.”

He said he will look toward coaching as a way to stay involved with the game.

“Chris is one of the more steady players, mentally, physically, emotionally. He just brings calmness to the team that’s dependable. It’s almost like having another coach over there on the field,” Righter said.

Righter said he hopes next year’s staff will be able to embrace some of the characteristics Pyz and Grann exhibited throughout their careers.

“I watched the way Chismar would go about practice and his routine. And it impacted me. I tried to emulate the way he prepared for a game. He wasn’t necessarily a [vocal] leader to the team, but he was a leader to me,” Pyz said.

For 17 years, Grann’s schedule spun around baseball.

“I don’t think I have any memory of myself before playing baseball,” Grann said. “[It feels like] my life doesn’t have structure anymore. It’s all free time.”

On April 18, Grann pitched a three-hit, complete game shutout against Plattsburgh to clinch the record for most wins by a New Paltz pitcher. Appropriate, as Plattsburgh was the team he faced off against in his first ever conference start. He lost that game 2-0 and it was the only time he would allow any runs against Plattsburgh.

Their dedication to baseball is one that reveals a love of the game that is beyond logical for those that weren’t there for the grueling workouts and tedious PFPs. Their hard work paid dividends — becoming two of the most respected and acclaimed pitchers in the program’s recent history.

Four seasons blurred together and select moments remain as lucid and the day they happened.

Beating Baruch in a blizzard at Dutchess stadium. David Lostaglio’s walk-off grand slam against Oneonta. Sitting on the front lawn of Southside on the last day of the 2011 season, clicking refresh on a computer, waiting for the final results of the Brockport and Plattsburgh game. Making a hitter swing and miss on a changeup.

A first conference start, and a last.