MONMOUTH — Eric Palleschi happened to be passing through eighth grade gym class four years ago when one of the youngsters playing dodge ball threw the ball the length of the gym, causing the Monmouth Academy baseball coach to stop in his tracks.

“Right there I said ‘We’ve got to find a way to get this kid to play baseball,” Palleschi said.

The rocket-armed middle-schooler was Chandler Harris, who had played some baseball when he was younger but wasn’t playing in middle school. Harris agreed to give the game another try as a freshman and the Mustangs couldn’t be happier he did. Now a senior, he is one of the reasons they are 12-0 and running away in the Class C South Heal points standings.

Harris is part of Monmouth’s outstanding three-man starting rotation, but most of the rockets these days are coming off his bat. He leads the team in hitting with a .528 average and has hit some lasers that have left his coaches, and opposing coaches, in awe — and occasionally ducking for cover.

“He’s had some line drives this year that have been incredible,” Palleschi said. “Randy (Ridley, Lisbon High School’s baseball coach) was here the other day watching him and said to me ‘I don’t know where you pitch him.’ He has kind of an unorthodox swing, but he hits everything right on the nail. Batting practice is kind of unnerving to pitch to him because everything’s off the L-screen.”

A left fielder, third baseman and pitcher, Harris emerged as one of the top hitters on a Monmouth team that was the surprise of the Mountain Valley Conference last year. He and the Mustangs made that leap by working hard on hitting fundamentals as juniors. Armed with a better idea of what to expect from varsity pitching before this season, they focused on staying consistent at the plate.

“Most of the mechanical stuff came last year. This year, we just hit the ball as much as we could,” Harris said. “We were hitting constantly during the preseason and got a lot of swings in and I think that helped carry my momentum over.”

Harris helps the Mustangs maintain their momentum from the mound. As the team’s No. 3 starter behind fellow senior Nick Sanborn and junior Hunter Richardson, he is 3-0 with a 1.36 ERA. That record includes starts against some of the Mustangs’ top competition, such as a 4-3 win over St. Dominic on May 9.

Although he still has the same strong right arm he impressed Palleschi with as an eighth-grader, one of the reasons for Harris’ mound success is his knuckleball,

He said he’s always enjoyed watching knuckleball pitchers such as former Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays, so he taught himself to throw the pitch while playing catch with friends.

“I just thought it would look cool,” he said. “I threw it a few different times when I played JV my freshman and sophomore year. I stuck with it and it’s been working all right.”

The knuckleball is virtually impossible for veterans such as Wakefield and Dickey to control, let alone a high school JV pitcher. But Harris impressed Palleschi with his ability to throw it for strikes early on and the coach never discouraged him from using it in a game.

“As a coach, you like to see the consistent strikes,” Palleschi said. “Once we figured out that kids like to swing at it… Once he starts floating it in there, he gets a lot of action on it. Kids see that thing coming in and they want to be the one to hit it. He started getting a lot of swings and misses at the JV level, and then he did the same thing at the varsity level. He does a great job of hiding it. We worked a lot on keeping the same mechanics, so that way they can’t see it.”

“He’s been huge,” Palleschi added. “He’s a great No. 3 for us.”

Harris, who also throws a fastball, curve and change-up, said the key was figuring out what velocity works best for his knuckleball.

“That’s one of the things I’ve worked on, what speed it works at best, because honestly, it’s really different 10 miles an hour faster. It changes the whole thing,” he said. “I just have to play around with it. That’s half the battle, finding the right speed.”

He threw nothing but knucklers during the preseason and developed enough confidence in the pitch to use it in any situation. He estimated he throws it about 20 percent of the time, but doesn’t have a preference on when to use it.

“I guess it depends on the batter,” he said. “If I’ve got a good batter coming up, throwing a fastball down the middle is not always the best option, so I’ll throw them one of those (knucklers).”

Harris, who will attend the University of Maine in the fall, doesn’t expect the Mustangs to knuckle under this season even though they’ve gone from the surprise team to the favorites. He pointed to the team’s chemistry and collective sense of purpose as the biggest reasons why.

“We’re really good friends and most of us played soccer and basketball together. We had a lot of fun through those seasons,” he said. “But really, we’ve been anticipating baseball the whole year, ever since our season ended last year, really.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33


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