By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Every pitcher at any level wants to hear his coach say they are getting the ball on opening day.
When that moment came for Palisades High senior Zach Ritts, the adrenaline started flowing.
“Coach [Mike Voelkel] let me know last week I’d start opening day,” Ritts said following his stellar effort in last Wednesday’s 6-3 victory over Harbor City Narbonne at George Robert Field. “It’s a huge deal and I was real happy. I felt loose. I felt ready to go.”
Although he was not locating his slider, Ritts had command of his fastball and changeup, handcuffing the Gaucho hitters for four sparkling innings in which he gave up only one hit with one strikeout and zero walks, allowing his team to build a 4-0 lead.
Palisades, which played only nine games before the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19, managed only two hits, including a two-run single by Wesley Wells with the bases loaded in the fifth inning to give the Dolphins breathing room after Narbonne had crept to within a run. Jacob Herrera had the other hit. Charlie Nance, Nate Akiba and John Iacono combined to pitch the last three innings.
Ritts played JV in 2019 when the varsity advanced to the City Section Open Division finals for the first time in program history. Watching the Dolphins at Dodger Stadium was all the motivation he needed to make his mark as a junior last spring when he was a varsity reliever and grew accustomed to pitching out of jams.
“I like starting but I like being a closer too,” Ritts said. “I kind of like being in pressure situations.”
Ritts lives in the Highlands and went to Marquez Elementary and Paul Revere Middle School. He played in the Pacific Palisades Baseball Association, Santa Monica Little League and Pacific Baseball Academy. Then, last offseason, he was a member of the SoCal Chicago Cubs’ scout team. Every step of the way he has added to his repertoire, but perhaps the biggest factor in his improvement was a change in mechanics.
“I used to throw over the top, but in the fall of my junior year I started learning how to throw sidearm,” he said. “It took a couple of months to feel comfortable with it but I’m glad I made the switch. I have more control now and more velocity. I went from the low 70s to the high 70s (miles per hour).”
Ritts has two older brothers. One is getting his PhD in Minnesota. The other is in medical school in Miami. Zach has committed to Oberlin College (an NCAA Division III program in Ohio) along with Palisades pitcher and infielder Kyle Grassl.
“I may spend time at second base and hitting-wise I’m not sure when or where I’ll be in the lineup as my main concern is pitching,” he said. “I approached this game the way I do every game. Think of it as doing your job. Throw strikes and let my defense work for me.”
Voelkel has had precious little time to prepare his players for the rigors of a full season and plans to use more pitchers than normal.
“When we meet on Zoom I ask the kids to give me their lifting stuff and his was far and away the best we had,” Voelkel said. “He’s been keeping a log of his bullpens during that time and he’s always had a high baseball IQ. He’s done a really good job and he earned it. That’s not a knock on anyone else, he just did everything he had to do. He’s strong academically too. Just an outstanding young man.”
Given the last time Palisades played a full season it came within one game of the championship, it stands to reason that Ritts and his teammates believe they can return to Dodger Stadium if the playoffs do happen: “No, we haven’t had as much practice time but mentally we’re all amped up and that’s our motivation, to get back there.”
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