Central Regional junior ace Andrew DiPiazza admits that after he returned to the mound from an ankle injury last season, one of his most difficult opponents was himself.

Central junior ace Andrew DiPiazza has been on fire to begin the season, throwing a no-hitter and striking out 29 in 14 innings over two starts. (Photo courtesy of Central).

“I was just shaky, and that was all because of nerves,’’ he said. “I couldn’t relax when I was out there.’’

The result was a nondescript 1-1 sophomore season in which he struck out 21 batters in just 17 innings after missing a month with a right ankle injury. Over the summer, he worked on his head as much as his physical ability by putting himself in situations where he had no choice but to deal with pressure.

While playing for the New Jersey Marlins travel team in a prestigious East Cobb showcase in Georgia, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound hurler looked into the stands and saw more than 100 collegiate and professional scouts. It was a sea of radar guns staring back at him, and he was facing a lineup of players from a travel team in California filled with SEC and ACC recruits. If he was going to finally conquer his nervousness, that was a great opportunity.

“It made me deal with adversity and react when things aren’t going your way by just staying calm,’’ DiPiazza said. “I played some of the best kids in the country and saw I could hang with them. I felt extremely confident after that, and now I go out there pitching the way I know I can and just relax.’’

His improving physical talent and a better mental approach have merged into a dominant performance to start DiPiazza’s junior season for the Golden Eagles. In his first start, he threw Central’s first no-hitter since 2009 in a 2-0 win over Point Boro in which he struck out 16 on 106 pitches despite blustery temperatures in the 40s. He followed that with a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 win over Monsignor Donovan in which he struck out 13 on 96 pitches.

“After the (Monsignor Donovan) game, I was upset that I gave up three hits,’’ DiPiazza said. “I see it as you can always do better.’’

DiPiazza’s newfound calmness on the mound also helped him as the game progressed against Point Boro because he knew he had a no-hitter going. He also had to jokingly steer clear of teammate Nick Imperiale, who he said told him he had a perfect game going into the sixth against Toms River East last season only for DiPiazza to give up a home run in that inning.

“As the game went on, I knew what could happen, but I didn't want to focus all on that,’’ DiPiazza said. “I just wanted to get through the game and focus batter by batter. I knew if I thought about it too much, you either leave the ball over the middle or you start walking people.”

You don’t just strike out 16 guys because you are relaxed on the mound, so it’s clear DiPiazza’s stuff has also made a leap forward. Last season he would locate pitches in the spot he wanted, but didn’t have the velocity to get hitters to swing through the pitch or make weak contact.

“If you don’t have location, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw, but even though I was hitting spots, since I was throwing in the low 80s, hitters could track the ball and hit it,’’ he said.

 

DiPiazza worked on improving his strength and mechanics, and by June his fastball was hitting 86 miles per hour. He first hit 90 in August, and while playing in the fall, he was consistently at 90-91. He also worked to maintain his velocity during the winter by working with New Jersey Marlins pitching coach Brian Aviles about once every two weeks up in New York.

In addition to his changeup, he added a spike curve that has become his go-to pitch, freezing batters who are bracing for that fastball.

“When something is not right with the fastball or the velocity is down, I try not to overuse (the curveball), but it's a very hard pitch to hit,’’ he said. “So far, my location with it has been very good. I'm just focused on getting it to land exactly where I want.’’

The next question is where DiPiazza himself will land, as he verbally committed to Boston College in July but has since de-committed. Unlike football and basketball, collegiate baseball programs rarely give full scholarships, and the financial package offered by the Eagles was a sticking point.

“The biggest thing was the money,’’ DiPiazza said. “I didn’t want to come right out of college having to pay tons of debt. I think everything will work out fine if I just keep pitching the way I know how.’’

DiPiazza said he has since added an offer from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) and that he will take a visit to Rutgers on Saturday. He may throw in relief early next week for Central, and his next start with be against Manchester in Class B South on Thursday. After setting the bar extremely high to start the season, he hopes to get a crack at some of the Shore Conference’s top teams in the tournaments to show the type of ability he flashed this past summer.

“The adrenaline of facing those big teams and being the underdog, I love that feeling,’’ he said. “I don't want to let anything slow me down. I want to keep it at this pace.”