Schooners pitcher Handa is opening a lot of eyes
Groton — A pack of professional baseball scouts crowded behind the backstop at Fitch High School on Thursday night. They flocked there to watch intriguing pitching prospect Rohan Handa.
Any time Handa, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound left-hander out of Yale, is on the mound for the Mystic Schooners, it's a must see event for the scouts.
"This kid is the real deal," said Dennis Long, Mystic's general manager and pitching coach.
The approximately 20 scouts in attendance for Mystic's game against Newport on Thursday apparently agree with Long's assessment. Some arrived more than 90 minutes before the first pitch to watch Handa's pre-game preparation.
Handa, a 21-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., is a fascinating story.
In just two years, Handa has progressed from not being on the radar of pro scouts to lighting up the radar.
He increased velocity from about 82 miles per hour two years ago to hitting 97.7 in his first New England Collegiate Baseball League start on opening night on June 3. And he's done it despite the Ivy League opting not to play this season and pitching just five innings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
He's pitched a total of 31.2 innings in his college career.
"Honestly it's insane," Handa said of his rapid rise. "This has happened so quickly that I haven't come to full realization that this is actually happening. It's been amazing."
In his second start with Mystic on Thursday, Handa cruised through the first three innings, striking out seven of eight batters at one point. He experienced some control issues in the fourth, allowing his only hit on an infield single and walking two to load the bases with nobody out. An error scored a run, leaving Mystic's lead at 3-1.
But right fielder Barry Walsh caught a fly ball and then gunned down the runner at the plate for a double play. Handa struck out the next batter looking to end the threat, using three sliders in that at-bat. He also throws a two-seam sinker, a cutter and a still developing splitter.
Handa, who fanned eight and walked two overall, looked at his final inning as a positive. The Schooners ended up winning, 6-4.
"You need to go through these kinds of things to really gain some mental strength," Handa said. "Sometimes when you don't have it in one inning, you've got to grind it out and that's what happened. Barry helped me a lot with the double play. Awesome throw."
Handa credits his improvement to hard work put in during the last two spring seasons when Yale played only 10 games.
He worked out at Tread Athletics, which is located in Fort Mill, S.C., about 30 minutes from his home in Charlotte. A video posted in March showing him throwing in the 90s caught the eye of scouts. He also credited Dynamic Sports Training in Houston for helping him out.
"When you have that kind of jump, it's hard to emphasize one thing," Handa said. "Obviously, strength, mobility and mechanics were the three things I worked on the most. Looking back, it's been the most beneficial the last year or so.
"Honestly, I'd say COVID has been the biggest blessing for me. If COVID didn't really happen, I maybe would have been the same because I didn't have a set routine at the time and I was able to figure myself out as a pitcher."
Also working in Handa's favor is that he's the complete package.
Mystic manager Phil Orbe raves about Handa as a player and person, praising him for his maturity and team-first attitude.
"Off the charts on any aptitude tests," Orbe said. "It's very intriguing for pro guys. He speaks four languages. He's done a huge amount of community work back in North Carolina. He's really an interesting guy. I told him the day after his first start, it was far more impressive to see how he's handled everything as opposed to how well he threw. And he threw very well.
"There's a lot of pressure. Rohan has handled it as well as I could imagine anybody would handle it."
It's impossible not to notice the scouts in attendance for his starts. But Handa somehow remains focused.
Handa, who'll be a senior next year at Yale, even briefly stopped to talk to two scouts on the way to the bullpen to warm up before Thursday's game, thanking them for coming to watch.
"My number one mentality is to block out the noise," Handa said. "That's how you go out there and pitch. You don't want to be doing it for the radar gun."
Handa plans to continue work on his craft and enjoy playing with his teammates. He'll think about the major league draft, which is in July, down the road.
"I'll try to improve myself as much as possible. If the draft happens, it will definitely be a good opportunity."
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