Ace lefty guides surging Navy into Patriot League waters

 Luke Gillingham is a senior left-handed ace for Navy and is part of the Patriot League-leading staff that’s taken the Mids to a 22-8-1 record this year.

Navy’s pitching corps boasts an overall 2.66 ERA while holding batters to a .230 average, both league bests. Contributing to those numbers, Gillingham is tied for the team lead in wins (4) and owns a 2.11 ERA. He also leads all Navy pitchers with 47 innings worked and 51 strikeouts.

Gillingham’s command of his pitches has grown each season, and as a senior he is increasingly starting off a batter by dropping a curveball over the plate or mixing in a changeup. The command of the three pitches is especially important on his first offering. “It gets them off balance, but still gets me ahead in the count. That’s really helped a lot,” said the Coronado, Calif., native.

Gillingham and his fellow Mids adhere to an approach emphasized by second-year pitching coach Bobby Applegate. “Once coach Applegate arrived he really stressed the mental side of the game – using a lot of visualization and having a pitch-to-pitch mentality,“ Gillingham said. “He emphasizes pitching to our strength, and not the opponent’s weaknesses. On or out in three pitches is a key to our approach,” he added.

Call it the “Navy Way” of pitching if you will, and it has provided noticeable results. The staff’s 2016 ERA to date is a full run lower than it was in 2014. Part of that drop is attributable to the maturation and development of Gillingham and junior right-hander George Coughlin. Coughlin is second on the team in innings pitched (39) and strikeouts (37), and he leads all Navy starters with a 2.08 ERA.

The two are the workhorses that Navy will rely on as it heads into the teeth of their Patriot League schedule. The Mids split their first league series with Holy Cross, and will try to better that effort on the road against Lafayette this weekend.

Navy’s non-conference record is the best among the six-team circuit at 20-6-1. A key to assessing any team’s record outside their league is gauging the strength of their opponents. “We had the opportunity to play some solid teams like Air Force (14-8),” said Gillingham of Navy’s early season, non-conference schedule. The Mids also have wins over the CAA’s Towson, the Big Ten’s Rutgers, and the Big East’s Georgetown.

The six-team Patriot League is perennially well balanced and with a four-team postseason tournament, the league is wide open most years. “No matter what teams’ records are coming in, the conference games all pretty much stack up the same way — competitive,” said Gillingham.

Helping out the Mids’ pitching corps is a .288 Navy team batting average, along with 176 runs scored. Both are tops in the Patriot League.

Still, there are games when any offense goes silent, and a team relies on its pitchers to shut down an opponent. That happened on March 26 when Navy hosted Princeton. Gillingham posted a seven-inning complete game gem against the Tigers to get Navy the win, 1-0, despite the Mids only crossing the plate once. In that contest, Gillingham struck out six and allowed just two hits to earn his fourth victory of the year.

“It was pretty funny. Our team captain Robert Currie came up to me in the dugout in the sixth inning when it was still tied 0-0 and said ‘I’m going to get you one right here.’ Sure enough, he got up, hit an RBI single, and we won 1-0,” said Gillingham. Currie leads the Patriot League in hitting (.394) as of April 4 by a considerable margin over its second place hitter, Bucknell’s Brett Smith (.361).

Navy’s Max Bishop Stadium has a turf rather than grass field; the turf has its pros and cons for pitchers. Gillingham has experienced both. “We’re not going to get the weird hop off the turf, but at the same time a ball might shoot its way up the middle that normally would have gotten hung up,” said Gillingham.

There is another benefit to the team playing on turf. Early in the season when wet and cold weather is the norm, it allows for 2-3 games that the elements would erase if played on a grass field.

Gillingham is as aware of what’s below him as above. Winds at Max Bishop Stadium can be unpredictable. “Every time I pitch, I look at the flags to see what the wind’s doing. It tends to blow in from left field and push right,” said Gillingham. “That helps to get a little extra movement on my fastball,” he added.

When an outstanding Navy pitcher arises, the question of a possible pro career arises along with him. Last year, Mids’ hurler Mitch Harris ascended to the St. Louis Cardinals after completing his service obligation and working his way through the minors. He was the first Navy player in 94 years to reach the majors. 2015 graduate Stephen Moore spent a brief period last year pitching for the Single-A Appalachian League's Danville Braves, before departing to fulfill his service obligation.

“Every kid grows up wanting to be in the pros, so that’s always on my mind. At the same time, I made a commitment to the Navy, and I’m looking forward to honoring that,” he added.

Above and middle: Led by Luke Gillingham, Navy’s pitching corps boasts an overall 2.66 ERA while holding batters to a .230 average. (Courtesy Navy Athletics/Phil Hoffmann)

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