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Tim O’Sullivan: Long and winding road to pitching success for Sylvester

Last modified: 4/11/2014 12:35:20 AM
Unexpected detours and delays have marked Derrick Sylvester’s journey. But the Franklin High graduate likes the place that twisting path has led – Southern New Hampshire University, where he’s the staff ace and a senior leader for the Penmen, who are ranked No. 12 in Division II by the National College Baseball Writers Association.

“It definitely could have gone a completely different way,” said Sylvester, who is 5-1 this season with a 2.93 ERA and regarded as one of the top players in D-II. “It’s really lucky how it worked out coming here and playing with awesome guys on the team and an awesome coaching staff. I’m surrounded by guys who love coming to the ball-

park and know what they’re doing, it’s great.”

As a senior at Franklin, Sylvester was named the 2009 Class M Player of the Year when he went 10-1 with two no-hitters and 81 strikeouts. He was also the school’s valedictorian, so it seemed like his school of choice, Boston College, was the perfect blend of academics and athletics for Sylvester.

But after spending the fall of 2009 at BC, Sylvester realized the school wasn’t for him. He hadn’t even considered SNHU coming out of high school, but one of his former Franklin teammates, John Pickowicz, and a summer league friend, Newfound High’s Garrett Jewell, were playing for the Penmen and sold Sylvester on the school and team.

“They talked highly about where the program was going with the new coach, Coach (Scott) Loiseau, and I knew I didn’t want to stay at BC, so this seemed like a pretty good fit for me,” Sylvester said. “It seemed like a really good opportunity to come into a program that hadn’t been great in the past couple years and help make it something, and we’ve been able to do that.”

After going 7-32 in 2008 and 14-26-1 in 2009, the Penmen didn’t make a big leap in Sylvester’s first year, posting an 18-25-1 mark. It was, however, a very good debut season for the freshman transfer. Sylvester, a 6-foot-6 righty, led SNHU’s starters with a 2.72 ERA, went 4-2 and was named to the Northeast-10 All-Rookie team.

The smooth transition of that first year soon turned into a bumpy road, however. Sylvester broke his left hand playing football with friends in the fall of 2010, an injury that required surgery.

That winter he came down with mononucleosis, and then he had tonsil issues that led to more surgery and more health problems. The Penmen took another step forward in that 2011 season, going 25-22, but the litany of ailments limited Sylvester to just four appearances and a 5.29 ERA.

Things got worse the next year when Sylvester took a tumble in his family’s backyard in Franklin and suffered a bone bruise on his throwing elbow. The scar tissue from that injury caused discomfort when he pitched, so just before the 2012 season he had minor arthroscopic elbow surgery to clear out the lingering scar tissue and he was forced to miss the entire season.

“We joke with Sly about keeping him in a bubble,” said Loiseau, who is now in his sixth year at SNHU. “He’s had some tough luck, but he’s worked hard on his body so he’s been able to stay healthy, knock on wood, the past two years.”

The Penmen would have liked Sylvester to play in 2012, but they did just fine without him. SNHU qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history and won the East Regional to reach the D-II World Series, where they went 1-2 to finish the season at 42-15.

“It was hard watching that, especially knowing I was ready to come back and be a big contributor that season,” Sylvester said. “But at the same time it was easy because we were doing so well. It wasn’t like we were losing games because I wasn’t out there.”

Sylvester made plenty of contributions last year, going 6-2 with a 1.34 ERA, striking out 71 and walking 18 in 73.2 innings, and helping the Penmen to another NCAA Tournament appearance and a 35-19 record. That 1.34 ERA was the best among SNHU’s pitchers who threw more than 10 innings, a staff that included three hurlers who were selected in the 2013 MLB Draft – junior starter Junior Mendez (16th round, Oakland), junior reliever Alex Powers (25th round, Chicago White Sox) and senior starter Jon Massad (25th round, Oakland).

Sylvester’s 2013 performance, plus his work in the classroom as a psychology major, landed him a spot on the Capital One Academic All-America Third Team. He also was one of 125 players named to the initial watch list for the 2014 Tino Martinez Award, given annually to the top player in D-II. And Sylvester has lived up to those accolades so far this season.

“He’s our number one, he throws strikes, he’s intelligent, he knows what he’s doing on the mound, he’s seasoned, he’s got good confidence, guys feel good playing behind him, and we feel like we’re going to get a good outing from him every time he’s out there,” Loiseau said. “There’s a lot to like.”

As the only returning starting pitcher from last year’s team, Sylvester also has proven his worth in between starts by mentoring the young staff. With Sylvester leading the way, the Penmen (19-7) are ranked second in the NE-10 and seventh in all of D-II with a 2.34 team ERA.

“He’s done an unbelievable job of bringing these young guys along,” Loiseau said. “The young guys have done a great job this year and a lot of that is a testament to Sylvester’s leadership.”

After losing his first start of the season, Sylvester has recorded wins in five of his last six starts. The most recent decision, an 8-2 victory over St. Anselm on Thursday, proved to be historic as he and Tim Viehoff combined to strike out 22 batters, a D-II record for a nine-inning game. Sylvester fanned 11 in five innings and Viehoff, a freshman from Derry, struck out 11 over the last four frames.

“Tim set the record by striking out the last better, so it was pretty cool for us on that last pitch knowing what we just did,” Sylvester said.

While breaking the record was fun, and the team’s success so far this year (best winning percentage in the NE-10) is nice, the real goals lie down the road.

“We’re just trying to race to 20 wins, then race to 30, and then we’ll try to race to 40,” Sylvester said. “We definitely think we can go to the World Series again and do some damage when we get there. That’s what we want to do.”

No matter when and where the SNHU season ends, Sylvester hopes it’s not the end of his baseball path. He would love an opportunity to play professionally, and with a fastball that ranges from 88-92 mph, an effective changeup and slider, his impressive college stats and his 6-6 height, Sylvester certainly seems like a prospect.

“He’s definitely comparable to the other guys who have come through our program and have moved on to the next level,” Loiseau said. “He’s got a great frame, a great arm, and if he can command his off-speed pitches like he’s capable of and the right people see him, I don’t see why he wouldn’t get a chance.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)


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