Bordentown High baseball coach Chris Glenn thought he had three aces in his hand when the season started, but Kyle Kato is the only one he has been able to throw on the table with any consistency.
Fortunately, the Kato card has been enough to grab the pot on most occasions.
Entering the Scotties’ May 23 state tournament game with South River, the senior was 5-1 with a 1.43 ERA and had 44 strikeouts while walking just 12 in 44 innings. His efforts have been needed as Bordentown’s other two standout hurlers battled injures. Kyle Marchetti missed the first part of the season with a shoulder issue, and by the time he returned Nick Nemes had been sidelined in early May due to injury. The “Big Three” has not been fully intact all season.
“To Kyle’s credit, he’s shouldered a lot of the load,” Glenn said. “He’s just embraced the opportunity. Any type of big game that we were in he’s had the ball. The one game he lost (against Moorestown) was the first game of the season and we didn’t make a couple plays behind him. But he competes and makes pitches in big spots.”
Kato knows what it’s like to be hurt after tearing his ACL and missing his entire freshman campaign. He can sympathize.
“We came in looking real optimistic with the three of us and we knew we could be special assuming we were all healthy,” he said. “We didn’t think Kyle and Nick would be hurt. We had to work around it, it’s been a lot for us supporting one another. Kyle was heart-broken by it and Nick is the same way. I feel terrible for them. I know they want to compete that’s why they’re out there.”
Despite missing his teammates, Kato has not felt any added pressure.
“I still gotta go out and do my job out there and throw the way I can,” he said. “I know there are other guys who can come in and relieve me if I need them. I have support in Tom (Niedermaier) and Johnny (Schroeder) and Dylan (Wood) and everyone else who throws. It stinks to have them out because we’re the top three, but there’s still guys behind me.”
Kato has been consistently reliable. He threw five innings in his first two starts, six in his third and seven in each of the next four outings. His main pitches are fastball/curveball and he has added an unlikely high school pitch with a knuckler. At age 14, he saw a video of R.A. Dickey showing how to throw it, and adopted the grip.
“I always thought it would be cool and I wanted to throw a knuckle ball,” Kato said. “I remember one game in eighth grade they let me throw it and I got shelled. They didn’t let me throw it the next couple years. But it’s been working pretty well. I don’t throw it too often but it’s usually a good pitch to get guys to go back to the dugout and say ‘Hey he’s got a knuckleball,’ just to get it in their heads a little bit.
“I played around with different release points and how to get my fingers on top or under the ball. Once the release point and the arm angle got into place I felt comfortable throwing it. Coach (Mike) Oliver said we’ll do it in the preseason, and it looked pretty good so we used it for the regular season.”
Kato has also gone from a non-entity at the plate to an offensive force. Through the Scotties’ 12-7 start he was hitting .320 with 12 RBI, two doubles and 10 runs scored. Not bad for a guy who had nine official high school at-bats entering the year. But through the season’s first nine games he had just three hits in 25 at-bats, which computes to a .120 average. He had a chat with Oliver.
“I said ‘Listen I don’t know what’s wrong, I can’t buy a hit,’” Kato recalled. “He’s like ‘Dude it’s front shoulder, keep it inside, drive the ball the other way.” I practiced it the next day.”
The result was a 3-for-4 game against Audubon, and he hasn’t stopped raking.
“I’ve been around .550 since Audubon,” he said. “Just one little thing like that. I’ve been focusing on trying to hit the ball the other way. I would naturally try to pull the ball ever since I was eight years old. Working the other side of the field turned it around for me. “
After hitting in the bottom third of the lineup most of his life, Kato was moved to fifth due to injuries and has responded despite seeing more difficult pitches than straight fastballs.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Glenn said. “He’s just a competitor. He gets in there and he just wants to hit. Some hitters will over-think sometimes, but his first mentality is as a pitcher. So when he gets in the box, he doesn’t do that. He gets in there and just hits.”
Kato grew up playing in the Bordentown Little League before moving on to travel ball. He also plays legion for Bordentown Post 26. His high school career was nearly derailed before it got started. While playing a backyard football game on a wet, rainy autumn day “wearing crummy shoes” he got tackled and suffered a torn ACL as a freshman. That sidelined him for the entire baseball season.
“It was rough,” he said. “I knew it would be one year that I had to sit and watch. I think it held me back, because for nine months I wasn’t able to run or throw or anything. It taught me a lot of mental toughness about moving on and not giving up. There were times I was going to physical therapy three or four times a week. I was like ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ It was killing me.”
He gutted it out and played sparingly on varsity as a sophomore. That came after he suffered a broken foot suffered in February while playing pick-up basketball with the varsity hoop team.
“Bad idea,” he said. “But it didn’t set me back that much. It wasn’t a bad break. I was back in a few weeks.”
Kato became a regular in the rotation last year and went 3-1 with a 3.59 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 37 innings. This year, he has blossomed.
“He’s a bulldog,” Glenn said. “He gets the ball and just doesn’t want to lose. Over the past two seasons he’s been that guy where I know we can hand him the ball in any game and he’s gonna give us a chance to win.”
He is a winner in the classroom as well with a 4.1 weighted GPA. Kato will attend Purdue next year and, although he wasn’t recruited, will try out for the baseball team while majoring in aviation management.
“There’s only a dozen schools in the country that have that,” he said. “I visited 10 of them and Purdue was the clear favorite for me. It’s all about, after four years, I have to have a job so I might as well go somewhere to get the education I want. If baseball comes with it that’s great. If it doesn’t, I guess that’s something I gotta deal with.”
But he can always look back on a senior year in which he was flying high.