Not counting his parents’ decorative throw pillow, Phillip Gerber never pitched growing up.
By his own account, he wasn’t much more than a backup middle infielder at Alemany High in Santa Clarita.
But since discovering a submarine motion and redshirting at Cuesta College in 2009, the righthander is poised to lead the Cougars on another postseason run a year after helping them reach the Southern California Regional Finals.
No. 9 Cuesta (22-14) opens a three-game series against No. 8 Cerritos (21-14) today, visiting the South Coast Conference Champion for a game at 2 p.m. before a potential doubleheader Saturday.
Gerber, who pitched in five of the Cougars’ eight playoff games last season, when they had to qualify in a wild-card game and finished only one step away from the state final four, will start the series having become the team’s ace.
The 6-foot, 170-pound sophomore has a team-high nine wins with opponents hitting only .205 against him, another team best. Without the strikeout ratio of No. 2 starter John Tiedemann (8-2), who leads the team with a 2.53 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 67 2⁄3 innings, Gerber relies on deception and location.
Gerber’s two-seam fastball tops out at close to 80 mph, but he mixes in a slider and changeup to keep batters off-balance. In a team-leading 841⁄3 innings, Gerber has allowed only 16 earned runs.
Velocity isn’t the key to his effectiveness.
“The harder you throw, the farther the ball goes off the bat,” said Gerber, who has committed to play at Campbellsville, a four-year college in Kentucky that was one win away from the NAIA World Series last season. “As many times as people have squared up a ball on me, it doesn’t go very far.
“When I throw, I know exactly where it’s going. That’s kind of how it is. When I was little, I would throw a Hacky Sack against the couch all day and use a pillow as a strike zone. My parents kind of hated me for doing it, but I’m glad it did it now.”
Despite his living room accuracy, Gerber did not pitch in a game until his high school pitching coach saw him goofing around with a submarine delivery in the bullpen one day.
The decision was made to convert Gerber from an infielder to a pitcher, and though he had some moderate success, he came to Cuesta without any type of fanfare.
Since then, he’s grown a couple inches and put on 30-plus pounds, mastering his unconventional delivery in the process.
“He doesn’t throw as hard as other guys,” Cougars leadoff hitter Davey Schultz said, “but that doesn’t really matter when you’re throwing from down low like that. He hits his spots, and that makes all the difference.
“You’re so used to picking up the ball from over the top, it’s pretty difficult because you don’t see it everyday.”
If the team is to make another deep playoff run, Gerber figures to pitch a lot, but as important as he and Tiedemann —- both first-team all-conference selections —- have been to Cuesta, the Cougars have only been as good as their offense lately.
With a 6-6 record in April, Cuesta has averaged nearly 12 runs per game in its victories and little more than two runs in each of its losses. Led by Western State Conference North Division MVP Michael Camporeale (.384 average, 6 home runs), the Cougars have eight players hitting better than .300 and bat .303 as a team.
Schultz (.418 on-base percentage), Max Duval (6 home runs) and Alex Detz (.348 batting average) were all first-team all-division honorees.
Runs can be harder to come by against playoff pitching, but even with continued success by its pitchers, Cuesta’s boom or bust offense can’t afford to revert to the latter.
“We’ve turned into a little bit more of a big-inning team,” Cougars head coach Bob Miller said. “The giving up outs to move runners for some reason has not been the most successful way for us. It’s been relying on a base hit and walks and somebody coming up with an extra-base hit with guys on base.”