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Six-Gun in His Hand : Armed With a Half-Dozen Pitches, Crabtree on Target

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a guy everybody calls “Crabby,” Robert Crabtree sure smiles a lot these days.

Why shouldn’t he? The Cal State Northridge senior right-hander is tied for the national lead with 13 victories, and he recently shook off a personal four-game losing streak to win back-to-back starts that helped earn the Matadors the Western Athletic Conference Western Division championship.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 10, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 10, 1996 Valley Edition Sports Part C Page 9 Zones Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball photo--A photograph in Thursday’s Times identified as Cal State Northridge pitcher Robert Crabtree was that of another player on the team.

Opposing hitters, batting .229 against him, are the ones who ought to be crabby.

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For his part, Crabtree is positively agreeable. He stands on the mound, looks in at catcher Robert Fick’s sign and nods his head before throwing the pitch. Every time.

Crabtree has never shaken off a sign called by Fick in two seasons. Talk about unshakable confidence in your catcher.

“We’re almost always on the same page,” Crabtree said. “Sometimes he calls this pitch when I’m thinking another pitch. But he’s my catcher and he must see something I don’t. So I throw what he calls.”

Fick runs the show, calling the game without help from coaches. But with Crabtree pitching, he could use another finger; Crabtree throws six pitches.

Crabtree has struck out 98 and walked 33 in 114 2/3 innings. After starting the season 11-1 with a 2.26 earned-run average, he lost four and his ERA ballooned to 4.06. The past two weeks he defeated San Diego State and Cal State Sacramento, and his ERA is down to 3.61.

The 6-2 victory over San Diego State enabled the Matadors to retain first place in the WAC Western Division. Crabtree got 19 ground-ball outs, struck out six and allowed four hits in a complete game.

On Saturday he allowed one hit in six innings, striking out 11 and walking none, in a 9-0 victory over Sacramento that clinched the division championship.

“When he was struggling I never doubted for a minute that he would bounce back,” Coach Mike Batesole said. “I’ve seen Crabby go through phases and come back with a good streak before. I wasn’t worried at all.”

Batesole’s faith has roots beyond Northridge. Three years ago at Cypress Junior College, Batesole was the hitting coach and Crabtree a freshman out of Anaheim Savanna High.

“He used to cut up our hitters in practice,” Batesole said. “As a freshman, he wasn’t game ready, but by the end of his sophomore year he was the best-kept secret in the state.”

Cypress won the state championship in 1994, with Crabtree pitching eight shutout innings against Rancho Santiago in the final. The performance came after he had missed more than a month because of fluid on his right elbow.

He had taken recruiting trips to Texas Tech and Cal State Fullerton, but those schools backed off because of his injury. Northridge, on Batesole’s recommendation, offered Crabtree a full ride, and the Matadors have ridden him like a workhorse since.

Last season, Crabtree was the top pitcher on a mediocre staff, posting an 8-7 record and a 4.43 earned-run average. Most impressive was his strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 126-30.

Most notable was his willingness to pitch. Crabtree once started both ends of a doubleheader against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, winning the first game despite allowing nine runs in an inning. All told, 174 pitches.

“I never thought twice about it,” he said. “My arm never gave me any problems.”

Cynical scouts would say he doesn’t throw hard enough to develop arm problems. Crabtree’s fastball tops out at 86 mph.

But because he has so many pitches, the fastball is used as a change of pace. Crabtree gets high grades in the three areas most important for college pitchers: location, changes of speed and movement.

“I spot the ball, throw different speeds and each pitch moves differently,” Crabtree said. “When all that is going for me and I feel mentally strong, I can be an asset to the team.”

A screwball he throws with a two-seam grip and low three-quarter delivery is probably his best pitch, jamming right-handed batters and running away from left-handers.

In a typical game of 120 pitches, Crabtree will throw the screwball, which he calls a “turnover fastball,” about 55 times. He throws a traditional overhand four-seam fastball about 25 times a game, a split-finger pitch about 15 times, a curve that breaks horizontally about 15 times and a circle change about five times.

Crabtree now throws a sixth pitch, one he developed in the bullpen at San Diego State, about five times.

“I needed something that would bite the outside corner against a left-handed hitter, so I threw the turnover pitch straight overhand,” he said.

He used the pitch to entice Travis Lee, San Diego State’s left-handed hitting All-American first baseman, to ground into a double play in the ninth inning.

Retiring top hitters confirms Crabtree’s belief that he can pitch professionally after this season.

“I’m in great shape, my arm is sound and I think I can pitch for several more years,” he said. “I really do want the chance.”

Scouts evaluate him as someone who would enhance any organization, not necessarily as a major league prospect, but as a pitcher whose work ethic and knowledge of pitching will rub off.

“I think he can be effective through double A, and who knows, maybe all the way to the big leagues,” one scout said. “But regardless of how well he pitches, he’s a guy you want sitting in your bullpen all summer, keeping the young kids focused.”

Which is precisely what Crabtree, 23, will do when his playing days are over. A kinesiology major, he plans to teach and coach.

“I have a lot of patience and I enjoy working with kids,” he said. “I want to stay in athletics and especially baseball. It’s about the only thing that interests me.”


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