Among all NCAA pitchers this season, Nova Southeastern University closer Devin Raftery leads the nation with 16.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
His ERA of 1.17 is second in the nation and first in Division II. Raftery also has 14 saves this season and had one performance in which he struck out 11 batters in four innings.
If there’s one major reason NSU will make its debut Saturday in the Division II College World Series at Cary, North Carolina, it’s the 5-10, 205-pound Raftery.
“He makes batters look like fools,” NSU right fielder Kavan Thompson said of Raftery, the MVP of the South Regionals that sent the Sharks to the CWS. “It’s like the hitters have holes in their bats. It’s ridiculous how many guys he strikes out.”
Raftery, a senior from Deltona, has 82 strikeouts in 46 innings and has held batters to a .181 average.
He will be counted on again in Cary, perhaps as soon as Saturday, when NSU (39-16) plays New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce (48-7) in its first game of the double-elimination national tournament. NSU is ranked sixth in the country by Perfect Game. Pierce is ranked eighth.
Sharks coach Greg Brown likes that NSU got to Cary by winning the South Region, a grouping that that has won two of the past three national championships.
But, mostly, the Sharks are just thrilled they have on their side the young man they call “Raft,” who has kept the team from sinking on numerous occasions.
Of his 14 saves, 10 of them have required at least four outs.
Raftery beats opponents more with brains than brawn. His fastball is relatively tame, usually ranging between 86 and 89 mph, and he adds a changeup and a slider, all with precise accuracy.
He’s 23 years old, but he pitches as if he were 33.
“Raft is so cerebral — he’s always a couple of pitches ahead of hitters,” Brown said. “He has unbelievable confidence.
“He’s not afraid of throwing balls. Most pitchers are not comfortable out of the zone. But he’s able to do that and then come back in the zone if needed.
“And there never seems to be a situation that is too big for Raft because of his poise. He’s not the tallest guy, but he acts like he’s 6-4.”
Raftery credits his second cousin, Juan Lopez — a former major-league bullpen coach for the Cubs, Giants and Reds — with teaching him the finer points of baseball.
A big Red Sox fan, Raftery has a Bostonian father and a Mexican mother. He didn’t become a pitcher until his senior year of high school at Deltona, and he was converted to a reliever as a freshman at the State College of Florida at Manatee.
Former NSU pitching coach Felipe Suarez was his biggest advocate, urging Brown to bring him into the program.
Once Raftery arrived on campus as a junior, it was quickly apparent that Suarez was right.
“Even in intra-squad games,” Thompson said, “he spins our heads around. We never know what’s coming. Raft can throw any of his pitches and put them exactly where he wants.”
Raftery was brilliant last year as a junior, posting a 1.30 ERA and striking out 46 batters in 25 1/3 innings, walking just six. He also held opponents hitless for 10 consecutive innings.
He was even better this year, yet Raftery has never been drafted, and it’s doubtful any MLB organization will select him next month, either.
Not that it shakes Raftery’s unshakeable confidence.
“If (getting drafted) happens, it happens,” said Raftery, who earlier this month graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications.
“I’ve been told my whole life I’m this undersized righty with a heftier body than what pitchers should look like. I don’t throw as hard – yada, yada, yada. But if you can get outs, you can get outs.”
Raftery, who got the final out — on a strikeout, of course — in the regional win that sent the Sharks to the CWS, can surely subdue batters.
He got an 11-out save, with six strikeouts, in that 3-1 regional-final win over Delta State. Once it was over, he flung his glove higher and harder than he has ever thrown a baseball. He started pounding his chest with his right hand and waited for his catcher to tackle him.
“I was exhausted,” Raftery said. “But once we got the last out, I felt this massive energy come into me. That last pitch was everything we had worked for the past year put into one level of effort.”
For a Sharks team that began the season 10-11 and battled some internal discontent over their underachieving start, this run feels incredible. After reaching the regionals four times in six years, NSU has finally secured a berth in the College World Series.
“This is something we will look back and cherish,” Brown said. “To go through the gauntlet we went through (including defending national champion Tampa), we feel we are now in that upper echelon of teams.”