Feature: Joe Popielarczyk Of Florence Finally A Star Pitcher For UMass Baseball Team
April 12, 2012
It's not often that the Tri-County League is even partly responsible for the success of one of the NCAA leaders in earned run average.
It's pretty rare too that the Atlantic 10's leader in the category didn't even make his team as a freshman and had an ERA above six each of his first two seasons. It might be even more unusual that one of the University of Massachusetts' most successful athletes this spring commutes to campus every day from home.
Few people have taken more circuitous paths to success than Joe Popielarczyk, but few are finding more of it lately than the senior right-hander from Florence.
There have always been flashes of potential from Popielarczyk, who was a reliever until this year, like his 2-1/3 innings of perfect relief against Northeastern at Fenway Park in the Beanpot consolation game last year. But he had a hard time stringing them together.
"At Fenway it felt like it was just flowing. I just tried to get it back," he said. "I tried to do everything the same, but I couldn't turn it on."
Disappointed with his 7.86 ERA and the Minutemen's absence from the Atlantic 10 tournament as a junior, Popielarczyk decided to spend his summer trying to analyze what was different when he was good compared to when he struggled as he played for Easthampton Savings Bank of the Tri-County League, a local circuit with rosters featuring collegians trying to stay sharp to older players unready to transition into slow-pitch softball.
On some days he was scheduled to start, Popielarczyk would work at Look Park during the day and arrive just in time to warm up and pitch. Those were often some of his best outings.
"I'd literally get there an hour before games because of work. I didn't have any time to think about it," Popielarczyk said. "I didn't have time to dwell on the game. It would just happen."
Thinking for Popielarczyk is usually a good thing, after all he's headed to UMass graduate school next year for environmental engineering. But on the baseball field, he was doing too much of it. Being a reliever made it worse. Knowing he could get into any game, he'd be mentally preparing for batters he might not even face.
"I realized I had to stop over-thinking. I'd mentally drain myself before the game so I couldn't focus," he said. "When I was a reliever, I'd be mentally in the game throughout and when they finally called my name, I had almost tired myself out mentally."
Had he stayed in the bullpen, the transformation might not have happened. But Popielarczyk threw well during the fall and in the preseason. Three weeks before the season started, UMass coach Mike Stone approached him and told him the team's No. 3 starting job was his to lose.
"That's what I was aiming for. I was happy to help the team in any way I could, but I always wanted to start," Popielarczyk said.
The role change has allowed him to establish a routine. He shows up 2.5 hours before the game, but while some pitchers immediately retreat into quiet game-preparation mode when they arrive, Popielarczyk tries to stay in low gear a little longer, joking with teammates and trainer Alicia Caswell. He wasn't a country music fan before joining the Minutemen, but the collection of somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs on the team's pregame mix relaxes him.
Tri-County teammate and Brandeis infielder Sean O'Hare of Southampton sent him an inspirational video that the TCU baseball team plays on its scoreboard prior to games. Popielarczyk will often watch it before starts.
"It's very motivational. It's about putting your self-doubts and insecurities behind you and just playing," he said. "I'm an emotional guy and that stuff gets to me."
The fixed routine has produced remarkable results.
Popielarczyk felt good going into the season and the results have backed up his belief. In addition to refining his mental approach, Popielarczyk improved his change-up and his curveball during the offseason. Those additions to a repertoire that already featured a two-seam fastball and slider helped him shine in his first start against a strong Central Florida team. He allowed just a run on six hits in 5-1/3 innings for a no decision against the Knights. A week later, 5-1/3 shutout innings against Old Dominion validated the first performance and gave him his first win of the season.
"Once I got into the rhythm of starting, something clicked. It was a lot easier for me to get into a rhythm," Popielarczyk said. "It is a confidence thing. I feel like I'm not afraid of anybody. I'm going to get this guy. Even against Central Florida there wasn't one guy that I didn't think I could get out if I did what I can do. That game was a huge indicator. Before the game I felt a little nervous because it was the first time out there this year. But in that hour before the game I was ready to go."
By the time start No. 3 rolled around, Stone was confident that the pitcher he'd cut as a freshman was a good bet for a good outing.
"Driving to the Fordham game that Sunday, I said to myself, 'I feel great that Joe is pitching this game. I wouldn't feel any more confident with anyone else,'" Stone said. "You know he's going to give you a great effort and you've got a great chance of winning with him out there. He continues to get better and better. He's got a great attitude."
Stone's hunch was right. Popielarczyk went the distance giving up just one run while striking out 10 in a 3-1 win.
"He's improved tremendously since he came here. He's such a great kid. His effort is what you hope everybody would put into it. He's earned it," Stone said. "Sometimes kids have had success and you know they haven't really earned it. Sometimes a kid can work his butt off and not ever experience success. But it's great to see it paying off for Joe."
He's 2-0 in four starts now after Saturday's eight-inning no decision against La Salle. He gave up an unearned run, six hits and a walk before his teammates scratched out a 2-1 win in the ninth inning. Entering the weekend series against Saint Joseph's, Popielarczyk's 1.05 ERA was best in the A-10 and ninth in all of Division I.
"I feel depended on now. I want to be depended on. I want people to be able to know they can trust me to get the job done the way I trust them," Popielarczyk said. "I don't want to do it for myself, but for my teammates. I've seen too many disappointed faces at the end of the season when we don't make the playoffs and it doesn't end up how we want it to be. I want to do as much as I can to help us get it where we want it to be."
So far so good.
Popielarczyk's success has been one of many ingredients to a Minuteman team that is much improved. UMass was picked 12th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll after finishing 17-29-1 overall and 8-15 in the conference last year. But six games into league play this season, the Minutemen (10-10) are in first place at 5-1 largely on the efforts of the pitching trio of Dennis Torres, Glen Misho and Popielarczyk.
Professional baseball is a bit of a long shot. Popielarczyk's height (6-foot-0) and heat (usually 85-88 mph) don't fit the profile of a guy scouts clamor to see. But it's no longer a shot than a struggling reliever with an ERA approaching eight one year putting up ace-like numbers the next.
In the back of his mind, he's hoping that somebody might take a chance on his potential for further improvement, but the same guy who was doing work for his Design of Concrete Structures class before the Old Dominion game is prepared for a career out of cleats. He interviewed for an internship Monday and is getting ready for grad school.
But before Easthampton Savings Bank becomes his only baseball team, he's trying to savor his final collegiate season.
"It really hit me that this could be it. The real world is coming. I want to take advantage of this," he said. "I just want to enjoy it while it lasts and try to keep it coming."
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