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Hop’s knuckleball baffles opposing batters

Danielle Guerra -
DeKalb pitcher Austin Hop has been a big part of the Barbs' pitching staff this season, with help from his knuckleball (seen here).
Danielle Guerra - DeKalb pitcher Austin Hop has been a big part of the Barbs' pitching staff this season, with help from his knuckleball (seen here).

Conversation between batter and catcher normally is limited on a high school baseball field.

But conventional baseball practices don't apply to any aspect of DeKalb starting pitcher Austin Hop's career. 

With command of the knuckleball, a rotationless pitch rarely thrown that baffles batters, catchers and umpires with its unpredictable movement, Hop has ascended to the No. 1 spot of the Barbs' pitching staff. 

Even though he only pitched in a few games on the freshman and sophomore teams the past two seasons and didn't get a varsity start until the Northern Illinois Big 12 East season was underway, it's the knuckleball, a pitch he first discovered as a 10-year-old, that has kept batters talking. 

When Hop (4-1, one save, 2.02 ERA) starts for the third-seeded Barbs (15-14) in today's Class 4A DeKalb Regional semifinal against No. 2 Dundee-Crown at 4:30 p.m., senior catcher Patrick Aves is prepared to be chatty. 

"The first game I caught Austin I must have had three or four passed balls," said Aves, who joked at first he thought it would be easier to catch Hop's knuckleball with a much larger first baseman's glove than his catcher's glove. "I just couldn't track the ball, it was moving so much. I've gradually got used to catching it, though. It's the best knuckleball I've ever seen. Hitters will turn and ask me what the pitch was. They can't believe he throws it for a strike." 

Because Hop's knuckleball routinely finds the strike zone and he is accurate with his fastball, hitters have to swing at a pitch they would rather take. The knuckleball's effectiveness led Hop to a 3-0 record in the NI Big 12 East, including wins over Yorkville and Morris, the teams that finished first and second, respectively, in conference play. 

Even though he doesn't have an overpowering fastball, Hop is able to keep batters off-balance and force them to swing at his pitch. He's not a power pitcher – Hop has only 21 strikeouts in 35 innings, but works quickly and said his greatest asset is an alert DeKalb defense that makes plays. 

"The best feeling is to get ahead of a hitter and then throw the knuckleball for a strike," Hop said. "When it's a pitch they [didn't expect], they will just stand there with a blank look on their face."

The element of surprise when a batter sees a knuckleball for the first time and an overeager approach at the plate are critical elements to Hop's success.

"No one ever sees a knuckleball," DeKalb coach Jake Howells said. "When he gets two strikes on a hitter they are forced into a decision because he will throw the knuckleball for a strike. He can locate his knuckleball and pitch ahead, which makes him very effective. With runners in scoring position, hitters tend to get a little antsy. That plays right into Austin's hands. The more a hitter tries to hit a knuckleball hard, the more they struggle."

Slotted as a middle reliever at the start of the season, Howells recalled evaluating Hop's knuckleball indoors at preseason practices. It was a novelty pitch Howells thought could earn Hop a few innings if the Barbs found themselves in need of a pitcher. 

But, Hop seized his chance and today will start the most important game of his career. 

"No one would have probably picked Austin to be our No. 1 starter," Howells said. "That's what is so cool about baseball. He had one opportunity he took advantage of. That led to another opportunity a little bigger. Eventually, he became our ace and that's an awesome thing."

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