By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – There’s no way you have a 2012-13 Bristol Observer Male Athlete of Year without Bristol Central baseball pitching ace Matt Blandino.
Sorry, but once you’re pegged by a Major League Baseball team, you have something special on your hands that everyone needs to know about.
This year, Blandino shared the award with St. Paul’s Kyle Dube but in the case of Central’s pitching demon, there’s no doubt the young man deserves the same recognition.
A three-time CCC South All-Conference selection, there might not be a tougher pitcher in the state, pound-for-pound and pitch-for-pitch than Blandino.
“Proud is just an understatement,” said Central coach Bunty Ray. “When you see one of your kids as a freshman develop to not only the player his is, but the type of kid he turned into…a lot of kids with his ability could have turned the other way. They could have an arrogance to them. But he’s a humble kid. He’s a great teammate and that’s the best complement.”
Blandino doesn’t physically stand out from his teammates but when he fires the ball off the mound at speeds over 90 MPH, he’s suddenly the one guy you can’t possibly ignore.
And some of the numbers he’s piled up this past season – and over his career – are simply staggering.
For his career, he’s zipped up 298 strikeouts (135 strikeouts in 2013) to 46 walks (nine in 2013) and just yielded fewer than 100 hits.
Those awesome numbers indicates that Blandino goes after hitters with ruthless aggression.
And when he smells blood in the batter’s box, he paints the corners of the plate to pick up strike three time after time after time.
“We have a philosophy: when you have the stuff, challenge hitters,” said Ray. “He challenges hitters and his stuff is good enough to get everyone out. This year, I don’t think he took the mound in a game where he didn’t strikeout at least 10 batters. Last year, he was a strikeout pitcher but I think this year, he really understood how to get people out and move the ball a little bit.”
“He’s definitely ahead of his time in terms of how to set up and finish hitters off.”
This year, Blandino went a blazing 10-0 with three saves while he struck out 135 and walked only nine batters.
In 76.7 innings pitched, he’s given up 28 hits while allowing only three earned runs to cross the plate.
And his ERA of 0.274 is almost laughable.
The only way you got to Central this season – like Fairfield Prep did 6-2 in the Class LL tournament – with Blandino on the mound is from errors and gaffes by the defense.
But those instances were rare and thanks to Central assistants like pitching coach Steve Gaudet, who helped Blandino add pitches to his arsenal.
“He’s got different ways to get you out now,” said Ray. “Before, he was just fast-ball, curve-ball. Now, he throws a cutter, he throws a change-up. Obviously, the velocity is up. Over the last two years, it’s been a nice luxury to watch him get outs by himself when he needed to.”
And whether it was a 6-0, one hitter against Fermi, a 1-0, two-hit win against tough Maloney, or a 2-0, two-hitter against crosstown rival Bristol Eastern, Blandino knew how to strike everyone out.
He was just so overpowering, especially in 2013, you have to compare him with some of the best Connecticut has seen over the past 20 years to make a comparison with.
“You have to compare him to…I played against (Southington’s) Carl Pavano,” said Ray. “It’s a different perspective as a player than as a coach but I talked to long time coaches and even long time umpires. I spoke to (umpire) Art Hamm after the (last) Eastern/Central baseball game and he had mentioned he had never seen anybody throw at that velocity and that kind of stuff besides someone like a Carl Pavano at that kind of level.”
Out of high school, Pavano played professional baseball and still does to this very day and Blandino has that kind of ability as well.
If you went to any of Central’s games over the past four seasons, Blandino looks like he overmatches his opponents each and every time they venture to the plate.
“But from what I’ve seen at the next level, playing college and even in the Twilight League against professional players, Matt at his age level…his savvy on the mound, is probably second to none,” said Ray. “Of course, I’m biased but I’ve played against and with great players but it’s (amazing) what he does at his age.”
Blandino ended up the Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year runner-up and was, once again, named to the All-State team.
And in terms of the CCC South, over the past four seasons, there has been no one better – no one – in terms of wins and losses.
“(And) I remember all his losses,” said Ray. “All of them.”
And when Ray meant all of them, there were only two losses to remember.
Those two came during his sophomore campaign when a bout with mono derailed the talented thrower from the start.
Blandino made just five starts, went 3-2 and if that was the year opponents were going to get to the pitcher, 2011 was the time.
Because from there, it was lights out over the following two campaigns.
But Blandino, frankly, was untouchable in three out of his four seasons and subtracting his sophomore season, Blandino was a perfect 21-0.
Over the past two years, Blandino went 19-0 with five saves and was, if not the top pitcher in the state, darn close to it.
When you rack up a 11.1-to-1 strikeout ratio, you are an elite high school pitcher.
In that same stretch, Blandino pitched 148.7 innings and gave up just eight earned runs.
With an ERA that turns out to be a 0.37, it just shows how far Blandino is ahead of his competition.
And then to cap it all off, Blandino was drafted in the 33rd round by the Cincinnati Reds and might bypass school to play professional ball.
It will all depend on the Reds’ financial situation but he could be following the foot steps of such local players as former Bristol Eastern standouts Jimmy Deschaine and Kevin Lyons into the minor leagues.
“What he does from here, that’s going to determine if he belongs” with the likes of Souhtington’s Carl Pavano and Sal Romano said Ray.
Ray has been around more than a couple of seasons at Central as both an assistant and a head coach and it took only one victory against Berlin to convince Ray exactly just how good the talented Blandino could be during the 2010 season.
“You know, I put my arm around him in the Berlin game during his freshmen year when he beat them,” said Ray, “and I said ‘Uou’re going to be special. Don’t let anybody take credit for what you do on the field. Don’t let anybody try to get you off the path. You have to work extremely hard.’ I thought his freshmen year, winning that game, he took a step in that direction.”
“I never realized he’d be this special but obviously, he took that moment and made several other great moments out of it.”
Ending his career at 24-2 with eight saves, who knows where the talented chucker will end up.
And whether its Central Connecticut State University or in one of Cincinnati’s farm leagues, Blandino will make the right choice and his strikeout totals will once again pile up.
“He took his ability and parlayed in into a success career,” said Ray. “And he really helped his team win. If you want talk about a kid being of that caliber, they’re are great players but can you make the players around you better also? Obviously, with the records and everything else, I believe he’s done that.”
By MICHAEL LETENDRE