Gus Culpo was supposed to be the next great Bishop Hendricken pitcher. Maybe he looked the part on Tuesday, popping the mitt and pitching two scoreless innings. Limited to 30 pitches and missing his strikeout stuff, maybe he didn’t.
It did not matter to him.
Culpo was just happy to be on a mound.
The lanky senior right-hander came to Hendricken from Moses Brown in 2012, ticketed for baseball stardom, but he needed Tommy John surgery before he ever donned the Hawks green and gold. He missed the entire 2013 season and most of this season, before making his debut in a garbage-time inning last week.
On Tuesday, when the Hawks needed him, he could finally deliver. Culpo took the mound when game two of Hendricken’s semifinal game resumed after a weather suspension the night before. His team was in front, but Cranston West had runners on second and third, one out and a 3-0 count.
Culpo escaped swiftly, keeping the Falcons off the board and stealing back any momentum that was there for the taking, momentum that might have turned the game. He pitched one more scoreless inning before Christian Travers finished out the game and clinched a series sweep.
Culpo was not exactly the hero – certainly not the one he envisioned being a few years ago – but he was just what Hendricken needed.
After the last two years, it was enough.
“I kind of thought I might never be coming back,” Culpo said. “There were some moments in the rehab process where I really didn’t know. This was the kind of moment I wanted to take advantage of but I wasn’t sure I would ever have it. Luckily today, I had the opportunity.”
It was a long time coming.
Before the surgery and before he came to Hendricken, Culpo flashed big pitching potential on the youth circuit and at Moses Brown, where he started his high school career.
Then came the arm trouble, and it was unforgiving.
Tommy John surgery is a common procedure for college and professional pitchers, with a proven track record and blueprints for rehab. For a teenager, it’s not so common. Culpo faced an uphill climb.
All the while, he could only sit in the dugout. He was becoming known more for his famous older sister – former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo – than for his once-promising pitching prowess.
“I was on the team last year but I was just watching,” he said.
This year, he felt he was on the right track. He played basketball for the Hawks in the winter and was ready to suit up for the baseball team in the spring, but the rehab process dragged on.
In the last few weeks, though, Culpo got the green light.
“I was wondering if it was even worth taking the risk pitching here and getting hurt again, but physically I knew I was right,” he said. “Mentally, that was the biggest challenge, believing that I could compete in this environment. Ultimately, I was able to do that. It was the right choice to decide to pitch.”
Culpo made his long-awaited Hendricken debut last Friday. With his team up big on South Kingstown in the regional final, Culpo got the call in the seventh inning. He was wild to start, walking the first batter he faced on four pitches. But he struck out the next two to end the game.
“He came in last Friday against South Kingstown and looked really good,” said Hendricken head coach Ed Holloway. “He did a bullpen a couple of weeks ago. He’s looked good. It would have been nice to have him the whole year. He would have been one of the top pitchers in the state if he was healthy. But he’s very good in the role he’s in right now, so for the next two or three games, hopefully he can give us a lift.”
The Hawks needed a lift Tuesday. If not for the rain, the Hawks might have waited to go to the bullpen, but with the suspension, they went to Culpo.
“It was tough,” he said. “I actually didn’t know I was going to be pitching until about 20 minutes before the game. I thought I was going to throw at some point but not right there.”
His second appearance in a Hendricken uniform would come with the pressure squarely on his shoulders. If he threw one ball, the bases would be loaded. If he let any runs score, it would be a different game.
He passed both tests.
“They battled him,” Holloway said. “They fouled off a lot of pitches, but he didn’t give in.”
Culpo also escaped a jam in the fifth before departing. After the game, he was celebrated with his teammates, just as he did last year. This time, he had a hand in it.
Culpo may get a few more innings in the championship series next week at McCoy Stadium. He’ll be on a tight leash, but he’ll do whatever he can to help. He’s hoping to pitch this summer and maybe find a chance to play in college.
Whatever the future holds, he was happy to embrace the present on Tuesday.
Hendricken’s next great pitcher was finally on the mound.
“Doing what I could for the team – that was the biggest thing,” Culpo said. “It’s hard not to want to help these guys out.”
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @RhodyWill.