By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
If Lou Pepper wanted to make a list of all the batters he has faced who went home after a loss to the Margate Hurricanes and wondered how they just went 0-for-4 against a guy who throws in the mid-80s and predominantly uses only two pitches, he would need a full stack of paper in his printer.
Pepper has been the most dominant pitcher in the Atlantic County Baseball League for more than a decade, and is on the verge of history. He needs one win to tie the career wins record set by Tom Gallagher, who set the mark of 131 in 2004. With a victory over Egg Harbor Township in the opening round of the playoffs, Pepper picked up career win No. 130 — against just 13 losses.
“I’ve been catching him for about six years now, but I remember when he started in the league. He’s a heck of a pitcher. He’s one of the toughest pitchers I’ve ever caught. He hits spots, he throws his curveball with the same arm speed and same arm slot as his fastball, and his curveball is sharp. You think you’re on him after a few fastballs, and the next thing you know (the curve) is breaking off the table,” Hurricanes catcher Dan Coia said. “He’s one of those guys who is so tough. He just bears down and makes pitches at the right time. The tougher the situation, the better he gets. The bigger the game, the better he is. It’s not something you can measure, but that toughness and that bulldog mentality he has, it’s like having another pitch.”
Pepper throws mostly fastballs and curveballs, with an occasional change-up mixed in. And his fastball isn’t overpowering, topping out around 85 or 86 mph, Coia said. But he does have excellent command, and his ability to get ahead of hitters is what separates him from other pitchers in the league.
“That’s huge for him. If he can get ahead and get strike one, he really puts guys at a disadvantage because everyone knows about his curveball. Whether he throws it or not, it’s always in everyone’s head because he’s been throwing it so well for so long. Everybody is thinking about it, so you can sneak fastballs by people. Or you’ll get just enough on a guy that it misses his barrel, or he rolls it over or pops it up. When he gets ahead, he’s really tough to deal with,” Coia said. “It’s so much fun catching pitchers like him. Fortunately, for us, along with Lou we have two other guys in (Jason) Downey and (Jared) Lenko who kind of do the same thing. If we get ahead and are playing good defense, it can be a quick game.”
“There are definitely nights he shows up and you know it’s going to be a quick game. When that curveball is doing nasty things coming out of his hands, we know we just have to field the ground balls, catch the pop-ups and score some runs and we’ll be out of there really quickly,” added first baseman Steve Normane, who also is the head baseball coach at Holy Spirit High School.
“When you work both sides of the plate and if you never throw it right down the middle, it makes it tough for guys to make solid contact,” Pepper said.
Pepper graduated from Egg Harbor Township High School in 2001, then played at Gloucester County College and Pasco-Hernando State College in New Port Richey, Fla., before finishing his collegiate career at Thomas University in Thomasville, Ga. He didn’t even start pitching in the ACBL until after he finished college, yet has gotten himself to the doorstep of the league wins record in less than 15 years.
“I didn’t pitch in the league until after college. I just concentrated on throwing strikes, and I’ve always had a great team around me and that always helps,” Pepper said. “When I didn’t lose for the first couple of years it started to dawn on me, and then (coach) Yogi (Hiltner) was telling me about the record and I thought it would be attainable if I was able to stay healthy. The last couple of years have been harder because the soreness is more and more after each game.”
“He’s been so consistently good every year. He’s only in his early 30s, and to get that many wins shows how dominant he’s been. He’s not the hardest thrower. When you watch him warm up, you probably think to yourself, ‘OK, I have a shot to put a few good at-bats together.’ But he has a good curveball and he knows when to use it. He lets his defense do most of the work, but he can also rack up strikeouts, too,” Normane said. “If he gets himself in trouble, he always seems to figure out a way to get out of it. He’s become a really good pitcher and it’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be on his side and not have to face him.”
Coia actually caught Gallagher years ago, and said both Pepper and Gallagher have a competitive streak in them that is hard to match.
“It’s unbelievable. I actually caught the guy who has the record, Tom Gallagher. I caught him for years, and I never thought anybody would break that record. Tommy pitched in the league for a long time for several different teams and he was in his 40s when I was catching him. And for Lou to be in his early 30s and have a chance to break that record is unbelievable. It just shows you how many games he wins. It’s like every time he goes out there, he wins,” Coia said. “Tommy threw everything at you and threw from three different arm angles. He threw two different types of curveballs, several different types of fastballs, change-ups; he threw everything at you. They are different, but they are similar, too. Lou basically throws two pitches, whereas Tommy threw the kitchen sink at you. But they both have that knack of making the tough pitch in the tough spot. They are both bulldogs, so in those ways they are very similar.”
Another skill Pepper has that makes him so good is his ability to adapt. Coia said that if Pepper’s curveball isn’t working during a particular game, he can rely on his fastball and change-up. If he’s having trouble spotting his fastball, he has no problem throwing a bevy of curveballs.
“Some days he is feeling better than others. Some days he’s not throwing his curveball for strikes, so we’ll use that as kind of a ‘show’ pitch and we’ll just throw it here and there and come with fastball in, fastball out, fastball up, fastball down,” Coia said. “Some days we will throw his change-up more than other games. It’s really game-to-game with him. Some days he does have the ability to blow the ball past guys.”
Pepper also has confidence in each of his pitches, and that allows him to throw any of them at any time — something that keeps hitters constantly guessing.
“A lot of times, hitters know I throw that big curveball and they will wait on that. So a lot of times I’ll end up pitching backwards, where I’m setting up my fastball with my curveball. I’m able to use my curveball to set up a high fastball or hit a corner (with the fastball),” Pepper said. “I’ve had to make little tweaks here and there (through the years). I don’t really throw any new pitches and I don’t really do anything differently. The batters change, so you have to change a little bit with them. But I still basically throw just two pitches.”
“You know he’s going to compete and throw strikes and he’s going to battle for you. He doesn’t throw as hard as Downey and he’s probably not as crafty as Lenko, but he’s the whole package for Margate,” Normane said. “He’s been on this stage for so many years now that it’s second nature for him. He just goes out there and throws strikes.”
The fact that he now has a career record of 130-14 also gives him a decided mental advantage over hitters.
“That’s a major part of it. This team as it’s put together has been at the top of the league for a while now, and Lou has been the anchor for us on the pitching side. If you’re a young kid — and a lot of these teams are made up of high school and college guys — and you look at a guy like Lou who has won all these games and is a legend, there’s definitely a mental factor there,” Normane said. “We’re the oldest team in the league and if you look at it on paper, these college kids should be beating us. But it’s the experience and the knowledge of the game. That all comes together for us, and for Lou, especially. He has a leg up on all these guys before he even starts pitching.”
Pepper said he has been thinking about the record more and more as he has gotten closer to it.
“I really don’t think about the record when I’m out there pitching, it’s more about trying to get the victory that day and trying to win another championship. We lost last year, so we want the championship back with us,” Pepper said. “Now that it’s in the papers and stuff, people bring it up more and more so I hear about it more than I did in the past. I’m ready to go get it.”
Pepper has a chance to get the record this summer, depending on how the Hurricanes do in the playoffs. But even if he has to wait until next year, he knows the record will be his at some point. In the meantime, he’ll continue to go out there every time his name is called, pitch his best, and have fun with all of his buddies.
“The best thing about (Margate) is we are friends all year long, it’s not like we just hang out in the summer,” Pepper said. “I’m friends with Jason (Law) and my cousin, Doug (Hiltner), is on the team. A bunch of those guys came to my wedding. For the last 10 years we’ve all been pretty good friends.
“He fits in perfectly. He’s a typical ’Cane, as Yogi would say,” Normane said. “We’re all friends off the field and there’s a lot of humor, laughter and inside jokes. I wouldn’t say he’s the ringleader, but he’s a veteran in that sense, too.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN