Calmness on the mound

Basketball aids pitching prowess for Elza

Tribune Chronicle file photo / Joe Simon Bristol’s Gage Elza throws at Eastwood Field. He and other Trumbull County All-Stars are playing in Friday’s High School Valley All-Star Classic.

When Gage Elza dribbled down the basketball court, weaving his way through the defense and finding a shot or an open teammate, he did so with a certain aura.

The Trumbull County Player of the Year recipient never looked frazzled or unsure of himself. He was always in control, according to his coaches.

That same look appeared a few months after the season ended, but it was it was in a different venue — on a baseball field. The left-hander wasn’t as well known as a baseball player, but the senior left-hander, who will be playing in Friday’s High School Valley All-Star Classic game at Eastwood Field, was one of the Northeastern Athletic Conference’s top pitchers.

Basketball was a big reason why.

“He had the confidence that, ‘Oh, just because I’m down (in the count) 2-1 or 3-1, doesn’t mean I have to throw my fastball and give in to you,’ “ Bristol coach Jeff Thompson said of Elza’s mindset. “He was not afraid to and had the confidence to throw his curveball or his slider in a hitter’s count.

“He had confidence in himself, and that was related to the success he had on the basketball court. You saw it on the baseball field — he had confidence in his ability.”

He has good reason to be confident as well.

Elza, who started playing baseball before basketball, held a 2.01 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings pitched this year. He was the ace for the Panthers, who finished 17-8 and lost a close game to Mathews in the Division IV Fairport Harbor district championship.

Thompson said Elza always pitched against the best teams, and it wasn’t just because he could locate three pitches (fastball, slider, curveball). It was his mentality.

“I was in a lot of close games in basketball and everything like that,” Elza said, “So if we were down one in a baseball game or in a tight situation, I didn’t get as nervous as I usually would. Basketball just kind of made me comfortable in different scenarios and whatnot.”

Thompson saw his ability to adapt regularly.

Also an assistant basketball coach at Bristol, the longtime coach said Elza’s ability to trust his pitches was critical to his success. He attributed the belief to being able to throw off-speed pitches for strikes and, again, to his experience as a basketball player.

“Gage is a worker, and Gage is a thinker,” Thompson said. “He’s not giving in to you. Even during the basketball season, I help Craig (Giesy) coach, and there were times he would be double-teamed or teams would run defenses specifically against him, so he knew that he had to do certain things to get open or get the ball, and he translated that to baseball in terms of, ‘I’m not going to give in to you or get frustrated if things don’t go my way. I’ve got to play the game.’ “

To the surprise of many, including himself, Elza became an accomplished hitter.

He admitted that hitting was never much of a strength for him, but that changed as a senior. Elza batted .403 with 20 stolen bases, 19 walks, 15 RBIs and just seven strikeouts in 87 at-bats.

Elza isn’t real sure what changed.

“Last year I batted .200, and this year I ended up batting .400,” said Elza, who played center field when he wasn’t pitching. “I really couldn’t tell you what I changed from this year to last year, hitting wise. I put the ball in play more, and I guess I got a little lucky at times. I’ve never been the greatest hitter — absolutely not. I’m gonna be dead honest with you.”

He did just about everything else well, according to Thompson.

He raved about Elza’s leadership and team-first approach. They’re qualities he’s going to miss when the recent graduate isn’t around next year.

“He was not afraid to tell people when they weren’t getting the job done,” he said, “and he was also not afraid to give them a pat on the back when they needed one and pick them up when they needed it. He was the leader in any way imaginable. It really carried on. There was no difference in seeing him being a leader on the basketball court and on the baseball field.”

Elza doesn’t plan on playing sports when he attends West Virginia University. He said people have told him to try and walk on, but he doesn’t think he will go that route. He wants to focus on his major of public health, enrolling in the Air Force and maybe becoming a manager for the basketball team.

“I want to find a way to get basketball incorporated because I’ve done that my whole life,” he said. “I just feel like I’ve put in a lot of time just to not ever touch a basketball again.”

He’ll always have plenty of fans in Bristolville who remember how good he was with a basketball — and baseball — in his hand.