While standing with his feet shoulder width apart, his heels barely making contact with the white rubber at the peak of the dirt mound and his right hand gripped on the ball and rested softly in the glove on his left, the pitcher stares toward home plate while he waits patiently to receive the sign from his trustworthy signal caller 60 feet, six inches away.
Once communication is established, the pitcher begins his windup, and in a fluid, rhythmic motion the hurler transfers his momentum throughout his body and fires the ball to the catcher’s mitt.
“Strike,” the home plate umpire calls from behind the catcher as he points his right index finger in the direction of the first-base dugout as if he’s shooting at the opposing coach.
The privilege to throw the first pitch to open a baseball game is one that many dream of, but few have the opportunity to make it a reality. Freshman Keith Rogalla has had four opportunities to start a game for the Bluejays this season.
The Creighton baseball team opened the 2015 season with graduate transfer Jack Rogalla (Keith’s older brother) as the opening-day starter against Cal State Bakersfield in Bakersfield, California on Feb. 13. Big East preseason co-pitcher of the year Matt Warren started the Saturday matchup and junior Tommy Strunc, a 2013 Freshman All-American, earned the Sunday start to close out the first weekend series.
Fast forward two months, and of the three starters in opening-weekend rotation, only Warren has more than two starts.
Through the first 29 games of the season, eight different Bluejays have toed the rubber as a starter.
Warren leads the staff with eight starts; two others have combined for 11; and a 6-foot-1 right-handed freshman from Oak Park, Illinois has four.
On Saturday, the Illinois-native pitched eight scoreless innings in his third victory of the season and tallied the longest outing of any Creighton starting pitcher this season.
Keith Rogalla threw a steady diet of fastballs during eight innings of work Saturday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha to improve to 3-0 on the season. The Xavier hitters had trouble making solid contact the entire game.
“They knew it was coming,” coach Ed Servais said, “and they still couldn’t catch up to it.”
He finished the day with eight strikeouts, two walks and scattered only two hits against 27 batters. Rogalla’s performance earned him Big East pitcher of the week recognition.
“He was on point [Saturday],” junior catcher Joey Mancuso said. “He was throwing his fastball and slider for strikes.”
The freshman went six innings and earned the victory in the Jays’ first conference win of the season on April 4 at Georgetown.
“He’s got a lot of talent and he’s really coming into his own at the right time for us,” Servais said, “because we needed another starter.”
Rogalla’s plus-fastball that reaches the low-90s is what separates his makeup from other pitchers on the Creighton staff.
“The thing with him is that he’s established his fastball each time he goes out,” senior catcher Kevin Lamb said, “and that allows him to go deeper into each game.”
The Oak Park, Illinois native did not begin the season as a starter. Rogalla, a four-year letter winner as a starting pitcher at Oak Park-River Forest High School in suburban Chicago, opened the season with a different role at the college level.
Rogalla committed to Creighton last spring, but was also drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 37th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft.
“Starting the year was a little tough to swallow,” Rogalla said. “[I went] from being ‘the guy’ to just being another guy and having to put the work in.”
His first appearance of the season for the Bluejays came in a relief role in the final game of the opening-weekend series at Bakersfield.
Rogalla entered with one out in the bottom of the sixth and a runner on first. The first outing jitters got the best of the newcomer as he walked the first batter he faced on five pitches, but quickly responded with his first strikeout and forced a ground out to end the inning. He allowed one hit, walked one and struck out two in 1 2/3 innings pitched.
Mancuso caught Rogalla in his first appearance as well as his most recent start on Saturday.
“[At Bakersfield] you could tell he was a little shaky out there,” Mancuso said. “He did well, but he’s definitely grown huge strides.
“And it’s great to see because we’re going to need him in the long run.”
Prior to his first start on March 14, Rogalla made three relief appearances. He also had a two-inning relief appearance in an extra-inning game against Air Force before making a start in each of Creighton’s last three weekends.
“He’s maturing right in front of our eyes,” Servais said. “We’re in the second half of the season, so these young players have all got their feet wet.”
Rogalla looked poised throughout his start on Saturday and showed a calm demeanor during his postgame interview. He believes his teammates have helped the most with his growth in maturity.
“It’s always a confidence booster when you have one of the best defenses in the country behind you,” Rogalla said. “You don’t even need your best stuff on some days. Sometimes you can just throw it in there and let them hit it and they’ll field it.”
Servais noted that if he can complement his fastball with another pitch he could emerge as one of the top pitchers in the Big East Conference.
“I think he’ll even get better,” Servais said. “He’s going to establish his slider and then he’s got a changeup to go right along with it.”
Lamb, a two-year letter winning catcher, agreed with his coach about what could separate Rogalla from the rest of the pack.
“[It helps] any time you can start developing a secondary pitch,” Lamb said. “He does have a good slider, but the better it gets, the better he’s going to get and that will be something where he starts throwing seven or eight innings consistently.”
Rogalla and the Jays host St. John’s this weekend in a battle between the top two teams in the Big East. Creighton defeated St. John’s in two out of three games in New York last season.
“When you have a guy that can throw that hard and throw strikes with an off-speed pitch for strikes, that guy can go far,” Mancuso said. “He’ll be big for us.”