Dillon O’Brien couldn’t wait for the high school baseball season to start. He was coming off a junior campaign in which he went 3-0 with a 1.75 ERA for Lawrence and was ready to establish himself as one of the Colonial Valley Conference’s top pitchers.
Two innings into the start of his pitching season, that thought process was halted.
O’Brien was the hurler in the season’s third game against Trenton, and in the second inning a line drive struck him on the forearm, barely missing his elbow.
“I was looking forward to that start for six months, and that happens,” O’Brien said. “My whole family was down, I got hit, and it was awful.
“Luckily it wasn’t anything too bad. Luckily, it just missed the bone. It swelled up really bad. I didn’t miss a game. It hurt, but it was fine and the swelling did go down.”
But it did affect him in his next start, when he lasted just two-thirds of an inning, allowing two hits and a run before coming out.
“The arm was still pretty swollen,” he said. “I always want to pitch, but it definitely wasn’t a good idea that day.”
O’Brien made it through 4.2 innings against a hard-hitting Hamilton team in his third start. Staked to a 10-0 lead, he ended up yielding eight runs (five earned), 10 hits and three walks in a game the Hornets eventually tied in the sixth. But the game reverted to the fifth due to rain, and O’Brien notched his first win.
The next two starts were vintage O’Brien, with complete-game wins over Allentown and Hopewell Valley. He allowed five hits and one run with no walks while striking out five against the Redbirds; and five hits and one run with one walk while fanning three against the Bulldogs.
He was back.
“The Allentown game, I was definitely in control,” said O’Brien, while taking in the Mercer County Tournament championship game between Notre Dame and West Windsor-Plainsboro South May 14 at Arm & Hammer Stadium. “I only threw 75 pitches. I was pitching to contact, missing the barrels. The two seamer (fastball) was running on righties and away from lefties and it was definitely a good day.
“The Hopewell game I started out a little rough. But I found my rhythm and went on from there. I feel like I’m back in a good groove. Now I feel more confident than ever. I feel like I can compete with anyone.”
Lawrence High baseball head coach Chris Gresko called those two games “textbook outings.”
“He had great pitch location,” Gresko said. “He had the defense behind him, and good situational hitting helped his outings.”
The coach is impressed with Dillon’s all-around demeanor, as well as his play. O’Brien was hitting over .300 through the Cards’ first 17 games.
“He has played an excellent first base for us when not he is not on the mound,” Gresko said. “He is quiet, but very competitive. He is a class act on the field as well as in the classroom.”
O’Brien started with the Lawrence Little League at age 8, making all the District 12 All-Star teams. He forewent Babe Ruth in order to play travel ball with Dan Toto’s Lawrence Titans travel team and remained there while also playing for the middle school.
“That was a huge help,” O’Brien said. “That team really elevated my game to a whole new level. If I never played for the Lawrence Titans, I wouldn’t be playing college baseball (at Coppin State).”
He made the Lawrence varsity team as a sophomore but struggled to an 0-3 record. That was followed by his strong junior campaign and continued on through this spring after he shook off the effects of the line drive.
O’Brien goes mainly with a fastball that tops out in the low 80s, along with a curveball and a circle-changeup he learned from Toto.
“He’s been very consistent this year,” Gresko said. “He’s a crafty left-hander. He has command of his changeup, and his backdoor breaking ball late in the season has allowed him to keep hitters off stride.
“He has an effective two seam fastball, and the ability to spot his four-seam fastball with the change of speeds, in my opinion, is what makes him effective and successful.”
O’Brien realizes he won’t blow people away with his fastball, so he has to pretty much make it look faster by mixing it in with his breaking balls.
“I definitely try to establish the off-speed for strikes early in the count and combine it with the fastball,” he said. “You can tell when I try to over-throw and overpower, it’s high and to the right. I try to keep myself composed and do what I can to hit my spots.
“I probably throw my circle change 55 percent of the time. Dan told me to establish that for a strike and get them off-balance. Once you keep the hitters off balance the game becomes so much easier.”
And while he tries to confuse hitters, it’s important for O’Brien to maintain an even keel.
“I take it like no game is bigger than any other,” he said. “When I was younger, the game was definitely a little faster, but I pitched in big games in travel ball. I learned at an early age to keep myself composed.”
That mindset impressed several college coaches, as Delaware State, along with Division III schools Wesley, Ursinus and Alvernia were all interested in O’Brien. He chose Coppin for several reasons.
“I have a friend from the Titans who plays down there, and he loves it,” O’Brien said. “They’re actually up and coming. What really solid me on it, is it’s the highest level I could play at and make an impact right away.”