By Wayne Witkowski
Long before he was selected for Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) Commonwealth Division honors, before he had pitched 24 consecutive scoreless innings and before earning an early-season MAC Pitcher of the Week honor, Alvernia University freshman Thomas Malik from Millstone was finding his way as a college baseball pitcher and learning the college game while growing in confidence each week.
Malik helped his team win the regular-season championship, although it was eliminated in the first two games of the tournament to finish 27-15. The 6-foot-3-inch right-hander recently was named All-MAC Commonwealth honorable mention. Malik was one of 10 players from Alvernia selected for the conference team.
“When you keep the ball down in the zone at any level and you hit your spots, you’ll be fine,” Malik said.
This was a higher, tougher level than when he had pitched for a solid Allentown High School program a year earlier.
“I definitely learned a lot for one year,” said Malik, who is coached by NCAA Division III legend Yogi Lutz, who has 810 career victories. “The biggest thing is the hitters are better, so you have to make sure you hit your spots more. You can’t put your fastball in there as hard as you can and hope to put it by them like in high school. They’ll be right on it and don’t back out of pitches.”
Malik started off as a non-conference starting pitcher, but it wasn’t long before an injury to a teammate on Alvernia’s starting rotation gave him an opportunity to be a MAC Commonwealth Division starter. He didn’t lose his spot in the rotation for the Saturday games when that injured starter returned and displaced a different pitcher in the rotation.
By the end of the season, Malik earned the team’s pitcher of the year award.
“The biggest thing for a freshman is his maturity in how he handles the level of play, and he handled it so well,” said Lutz, who just completed his 30th season.
“It was a new experience, so I’m glad I got the chance to play. I was not expecting too much filling in as a freshman, but I knew if I would work hard and do what I could to succeed, I’d do all right,” Malik said. “This was more than I expected as a freshman.”
Malik went 5-3 with a 2.82 ERA in 60.2 innings pitched. It was the fourth lowest ERA in the Commonwealth Division and seventh lowest in the MAC. He allowed 23 runs — 19 of them earned — as he showed great control while relying on his defense, which included a MAC division Player of the Year and second team all-region first baseman, as well as a MAC division Rookie of the Year freshman shortstop. Malik struck out 31 and walked 11 on the season. He allowed 14 doubles and one home run.
“I relied on a two-seam fastball more and got it more on the hands of the hitters,” Malik said. “My pitching coach said to key on inside fastballs. A lot of pitchers like [their pitches] to dance around the hitters, but I go right after them to get ground balls and fly balls. My pitching coach says to get them out on the third pitch. Seventy-five perfect of my outs were on ground balls.”
Malik said he’d get batters out in front with his changeup but stayed mostly with his signature fastball. He switched from a curveball he threw a bit in high school to a hard slider to keep most of his pitches coming fast to the plate.
“I use the slider for teams jumping out at the first pitch and then I come back with the fastball,” Malik said.
Lutz said attacking the strike zone keyed Malik’s success.
“One of the things we instill in our pitchers is to throw strikes,” Lutz said. “He had the build, the height and the [velocity] in the low 80s (mph). I knew our pitching coach, Rich Gaynor, who got up to the Philadelphia Phillies, would bring him along. When they hit him, he got pretty much routine outs. We told him he does not have to throw nine innings but if he gives us six to seven solid innings, the bullpen goes from there.
“One of the things he’ll need to improve is his arm strength. As good as he was, he needs a little more body weight (from 180 pounds) and arm strength with our long-toss program.”
Although Malik hardly looked like a freshman late in the season, he needed to make steady and consistent strides from the start of the season.
He said he was still feeling his way through things at the start of the season, learning from his head coach and pitching coach, until a breakout week in early March in Florida earned Malik the MAC Commonwealth Pitcher of the Week honor.
Malik went 5.2 innings in his first start of the week, allowing just two runs (one earned) in a no-decision against Rivier University. In his second start of the week, Malik recorded his first collegiate win, throwing a complete-game three-hitter over seven innings. He retired the final 18 batters he faced in that game, shutting down unbeaten Mitchell College after a three-run first, and his team scored eight runs in the last inning to seal an 11-3 victory.
“Before the season, I did not know what to expect and when I had my first start, I did not know what I had to do to get guys out on this level,” Malik said. “As the season went on, I got more and more confident and hit my stride in late April, early May with back-to-back shutouts.”
Actually, it was back-to-back-to-back division shutouts. The streak started after Malik allowed a run in the first inning and threw four shutout innings from there, with relief help, against Widener University for a 7-1 victory. Then Malik scattered six hits over six innings in a 9-0 victory over Hood College April 10, threw a two-hitter over the full seven innings in an 8-0 victory over Lebanon Valley College April 16 and allowed six hits over six innings in an 11-0 victory over Albright College April 23.
Oddly, he never earned MAC Commonwealth Pitcher of the Week during that stretch. At the end of the season in the MAC division tournament elimination game against Stevenson University, Malik pitched well on the short end of a 6-4 result. Alvernia had come off an 11-3 loss to Mitchell in its tournament opener.
Stevenson opened up the game against Malik with three straight hits to deliver a run with no one out. Malik coaxed a groundout from Stevenson’s cleanup hitter with runners on first and second, and the runner from first was called for interference on the play at second base, giving the Crusaders two outs and bringing the lead runner back to second. Malik got out of the jam with a strikeout on five pitches and one run allowed.
Alvernia tied it in the bottom of the first before Stevenson took a 3-1 lead after five innings. Malik worked around baserunners in both the second and fourth innings and posted 1-2-3 innings in the third and fifth.
Stevenson started the sixth inning with four straight singles — the fourth loading the bases with one run across, which signaled the end of the day for Malik. He was charged with five runs on eight hits with four strikeouts and a walk.
These days, Malik plans to return to the Allentown American Legion team for his fourth season, as the team is getting underway under second-year head coach Brett Miller, who was an assistant this spring at The College of New Jersey. Malik was 7-0 two years ago when he fired 36 strikeouts in 45 innings, as that Allentown Legion team (18-9) twice got a shot at making the eight-team state championship round before falling short in the district finals. Malik was 4-0 the previous season and 6-3 last season.
In that dramatic finish to 2014, Allentown’s Legion season ended in a 2-1 loss to Gibbstown, which scored both runs in the ninth inning. Allentown had won its first two games in the district tournament but lost in the winners bracket game that would clinch a berth in the state championships when perennial power Brooklawn broke away in the late innings for an 8-2 victory. With the top two teams from the district advancing into the state finals, Allentown had another shot at making the state championships against Gibbstown before that 2-1 loss.
Malik says he wishes he was more productive in high school at Allentown, a career nonetheless highlighted by a perfect-game victory, 10-0, over West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. Malik did not realize that day he had a shot at his first perfect milestone until the fifth inning, when the Redbirds padded the lead to 10 runs and then he only had to close out the bottom of the inning because of the 10-run rule.
This summer will be a good primer for next season when most of Alvernia’s team returns, although it loses its No. 2 pitcher and two primary bullpen relievers. Malik will adjust to a new catcher, but he does not appear overly concerned about that with the confidence and baseball knowledge he gained from this spring’s success.
“Pitching and defense are always our main focus,” Lutz said. “If you have that, you have a chance to win games.”