BY STEVE KRAH
Joe Graziano has learned lessons in confidence during his baseball career.
The left-handed pitcher built up a sense of determination that took him to weekend starter in his third season at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Years before, a surge of assurance had helped Graziano make the transition from the freshmen team to varsity as sophomore at Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind.
Graziano credits Butler head coach Dave Schrage for giving him the courage to advance as a Bulldog.
“He wants to get the best out of you,” says Graziano of Schrage. “He definitely helped me settle in by instilling that confidence in me.
“I feel like I was ready to throw pretty well.”
As a Butler freshman in 2018, Graziano made 13 mound appearances (four starts) and went 3-0 with a 4.70 earned run average, 17 strikeouts and seven walks in 23 innings.
Primarily a mid-week starter in 2019, the lefty appeared in 15 games (seven starts) and went 4-4 with a 4.09 ERA, 36 strikeouts and 17 walks in 44 innings.
The Bulldogs were 8-7 and coming off a March 11 victory against Saint Joseph’s (Pa.) in Port Charlotte, Fla., when the team found out the 2020 season had been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were sitting at the pool,” says Graziano. “We thought we were coming back in two weeks.
“We were optimistic.”
It soon turned out that the rest of the campaign was canceled and student-athletes were sent home.
Graziano went back to northwest Indiana having gotten into four games (all as a starter) and went 1-1 with a 4.67 ERA, 15 strikeouts and 10 walks in 17 1/3 innings. His first start was on a Saturday and the rest came on Sunday.
“I worked all fall to get there,” says Graziano of his role. “I finally got it. I really liked pitching on the weekend.
“Everyone’s locked in and there’s a little bit of pressure.”
When the 2020 shutdown happened, Graziano had already secured an internship and was looking to find a baseball team for the summer.
A double major in Finance and Risk Management, Graziano is doing his internship with Chicago-based Aon and pitching on weekends with the Midwest Collegiate League’s Northwest Indiana Oilmen.
“Butler business school requires two internships,” says Graziano. “That’s 240 hours. You also take a class, write a paper and do interviews.
“It’s kind of a lot.”
For his first internship, Joe is on the clock online at his house in Schererville, Ind., from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. He is upstairs while his mother, Roxanna, does her sales job with U.S. Steel, is in the basement.
When Joe is done with his internship duties, he does his band and weighted ball work and heads across the street to Autumn Creek Park to play catch with younger brother Joshua.
At 21, Joe is two years older than his brother. Joshua is enrolled at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis. Their father, Joseph, is a manager at the BP Whiting Refinery, which is very near where Joe is in his second stint with the Oilmen.
The summer right after he graduated from Lake Central in 2017, Joe appeared in seven Northwest Indiana games (five starts) and went 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA, 39 strikeouts and six walks in 31 innings.
“It was the first time I faced college hitters,” says Graziano. “I was playing with kids out of The Region. We were finally on a friendly surface and can be teammates.
Manager Adam Enright, a Munster (Ind.) High School and University of Southern Indiana graduate, also worked closely with Oilmen pitchers.
In 2020, he is being used strictly as a reliever.
“I didn’t want to rush back into it,” says Graziano. “I’m pitching 2-3 innings at a time. I want to build my stamina and pitch count back up.”
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound southpaw took off about a week off when the 2020 spring season shut down then began training, lifting weights and throwing while reaching out to the Oilmen.
“I want to keep my spot when I get back to Butler,” says Graziano.
The Oilmen are managed by Chris Cunningham. Graziano spends most of his time with pitching coach Matt Pobereyko.
“I’ve been trying to take in as much information as possible,” says Graziano. “He’s been teaching me this forkball/splitter. I have pretty big hands.
“I like how (Pobereyko) thinks on the mound. You’re better than the hitter. Never lose confidence. I definitely like Po’s mentality.”
In the summer of 2019, Graziano pitched for the Coastal Plain League’s Fayetteville (N.C.) SwampDogs.
It was a struggle at first.
“I started doing well toward the end,” says Graziano. “I got a lot better out there. I had a little adversity and I battled through it.”
Fayetteville was managed by David Anderson.
Lefty Graziano was with the Prospect League’s Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators in 2018. There, he enjoyed living with a host family and got to play with Butler teammate Connor Schultz.
“You make a lot of new friends in summer ball,” says Graziano, who played for a Lafayette team managed by Will Arnold. Future Butler assistant Jake Ratz was also on the Aviators coaching staff.
Ben Norton is Butler’s pitching coach. He has taught Graziano a slider and helped instill confidence.
“He’s helped me develop into a great pitcher,” says Graziano of Norton. “He helps everyone
“If you struggle, he’s not going to give up on you.”
At Lake Central, three-year letterman Graziano went 20-7 (with a pair of perfect games), including 8-4 against Duneland Athletic Conference opponents. As a senior, he went 6-3 with a 2.11 ERA, 84 strikeouts and 13 walks in 60 innings and helped the Indians to an IHSAA Class 4A Munster Sectional title.
He was all-DAC, all-area (Northwest Indiana Times) and Academic All-State.
Jeff Sandor was LC’s head coach for Graziano’s sophomore and junior seasons. Mike Swartzentruber took over the program in his senior year.
“(Sandor) is the craziest coach I’ve played for and one of the best coaches I’ve played for,” says Graziano. “He was tough on guys. But he had to be be. He demanded that level of play.
“You knew what you had to bring to the table.”
Graziano says Swartzentruber’s strength came in team building.
“Swartz was more calm than Sandor,” says Graziano. “We all knew what we wanted to do. We had a lot of good players. Swartz did a good job of bringing the team together.”
At Lake Central — a school with about 3,300 students — it is not uncommon for close to 100 players to try out for baseball. The high school is fed by three middle schools — Clark, Grimmer and Kahler].
“There’s a lot of competition,” says Graziano, who came through Grimmer. “You feel bad when your friends don’t make the team. The school is so big.”
While the rivalries among the middle schools is fierce, they become one team at LC.
While at Lake Central, southpaw Graziano used a curve ball that was “a little loopy and slow” that fooled many high school hitters.
When he got to Butler, he left the curve for a slider that has a tighter spin and has more horizontal than vertical break.
From his three-quarter overhand arm slot, Graziano also throws a tailing four-seam fastball and a “circle” change-up.
“It’s really good against righties,” says Graziano. “It has depth and tails away.”
Born in Munster, Ind., Graziano spent the early part of his life in nearby Hammond before settling in Schererville.
While playing for the Schererville Shock — coached by Dan Bosold and Dave Lopez — he made close friends. Among those are current Purdue players Ben Nisle and Bo Hofstra as well as Jarrett Lopez (who went to Purdue Northwest).
Grazing played for Apex Baseball in the summers leading into his last two years in high school. Marc Escobedo was the head coach. Brett Summers was his pitching coach/instructor.
“(Summers) always helped me,” says Graziano. “He was always patient.”
Graziano also enjoyed his time on the basketball court. At Lake Central, he played for head coach Dave Milausnic whom he salutes for getting the Indians ready for their demanding schedule.
“Our senior year, we didn’t have a big superstar,” says Graziano. “(Milausnic) had us prepared for every game.
“I was the point guard as a senior. I was calling the plays and handling the ball a lot.”