Look for the guy doing handstands just before his start.
That is where you’ll find the pitcher who throws100 mph and leads D1 college baseball in ERA.
He’s Fordham lefthander Matt Mikulski, who is 6-0, 0.92 in eight starts, and his ERA could be even lower had one of his fielders not lost a ball in the sun against Delaware.
Mikulski’s pre-game routine includes cartwheels and handstands as well as vertical and lateral leaps, which are all designed to maintain his athleticism.
“I don’t know where he got all that from, but I just leave him alone,” Fordham coach Kevin Leighton said sheepishly. “I’ve never seen anything like it before, but hey, maybe it’ll start a new trend.”
Calisthenics aren’t the only things Mikulski does to prepare for a start. Mikulski, a big fan of mixed martial arts, borrows from MMA star Conor McGregor when it comes to mental and emotional approach.
Mikulski even wears a McGregor-esque hoodie at times while doing his pre-game stretches.
“Baseball is essentially my livelihood,” said Mikulski, who will turn 22 on May 18. “Anybody who steps into that batter’s box is trying to take away my livelihood. That’s the way I look at it.”
Fordham, one of the oldest college baseball programs in the nation with a history that dates to the 1850s, has had just one first-rounder so far – righthander Pete Harnisch, who was the 27th pick in the 1987 MLB Draft.
Harnisch, whose son Jack now plays second base for Fordham (18-12), was an MLB All-Star in 1991.
Mikulski dreams of reaching the MLB level. But for now, he’s dominating college baseball and has a shot at becoming Fordham’s second first-rounder when the draft begins on July 11.
In 48.2 innings this season, Mikulski has struck out 91 batters. He has allowed just 18 hits and 19 walks, and batters are hitting just .111 against him.
He ranks second in the nation in total strikeouts as well strikeouts per nine innings and fewest hits per game.
“Everything is there,” Leighton said when asked about Mikulski, the reigning Atlantic 10 Conference Pitcher of the Week after striking out 15 Saint Joseph’s batters on Saturday. “He has the frame (6-4, 205 pounds). He has the work ethic. He has a legit four-pitch mix. He is around the zone. He has an upper-90s fastball, and he is putting up serious numbers.
“It’s all there.”
How It Began
Mikulski is from Mohegan Lake, New York, about 50 miles from Fordham’s Bronx campus.
The youngest of two brothers, Mikulski played four sports growing up, including quarterback in football as well as lacrosse and basketball.
“I was throwing him a ball since he was in diapers,” said his father, Dennis Mikulski, who played outside linebacker and H-back at Division III SUNY Albany.
Sheila Sheridan, Mikulski’s mother, said her son was talented in all four sports.
“If there were conflicts, he would agonize,” she said. “He would say, ‘Mom, you don’t understand.’ He didn’t want to let anyone down.
“I don’t remember the kid missing a practice, even if he wasn’t feeling good.”
Even so, by the time he entered high school, Mikulski had dropped the other three sports to focus on baseball.
“It was against my DNA to pull Matthew out of football,” his father said, “but it was the right call.”
A pitcher since age 8, Mikulski was a late bloomer physically. He was 5-8 and 175 pounds as a high school freshman and about 5-11 and 190 upon entering Fordham.
Leighton, though, liked Mikulski’s arm action and breaking ball.
“We tried to move on him early,” Leighton said of Mikulski, who was drawing interest from Villanova, St. John’s and Stony Brook. “Most of the guys we get at Fordham are not ‘can’t miss’ prospects. They are guys who come here, work hard and develop.
“Matt was throwing 83-84 when we offered him some scholarship money. I would be lying if I said we knew at that time Matt would become a superstar.”
Mikulski grew while in college – physically and also in his knowledge of pitching.
As a freshman in 2018, Mikulski went 4-5 with a 5.18 ERA in 12 games, including seven relief appearances.
“I was the only lefty on the team, and I got put in some tough situations,” said Mikulski, who struck out 41 batters in 41.2 innings that year. “But I learned.”
As a sophomore, Mikulski improved, going 6-6 with a 4.06 ERA in 18 appearances, including 14 starts. He pitched 5.1 scoreless innings in the Atlantic 10 championship game that year. Fordham went on to win that game, 4-3, in a 12-inning walk-off victory. It was Fordham’s second-ever A-10 tournament championship and its first since 1998.
That summer, Mikulski pitched in the Cape Cod League, boosting his confidence.
For the 2020 season, Leighton brought in Elliot Glynn as Fordham’s new pitching coach. Glynn, a former lefthander for UConn and in the Milwaukee Brewers chain, made an immediate connection with Mikulski.
The two lefties “spoke the same language”, Glynn said,
From watching film, Glynn noticed that Mikulski “ran hot” at times with his emotions. When things started to go wrong, he would overthrow, leading to walks and big innings.
Glynn got Mikulski to slow the game down in those instances, focusing on his breathing, and the instruction worked. As a junior, Mikulski went 2-1 with a 1.29 ERA in four starts with 18 strikeouts in 21 innings before COVID canceled the rest of the season.
During the 2020 MLB Draft, Mikulski said he got calls during the fourth and fifth rounds, but the financial offers were not substantial enough. At one point, his father asked if it would be prudent to take an undervalued bonus and just start his minor league career.
But Mikulski held firm.
“I was listening to my intuition and my gut,” said Mikulski, who is on pace to graduate this summer with a degree in Communications & Culture. “I felt I was slighted. That happens in the draft.
“I told my dad, ‘I’m going to go back to school and prove people wrong.’”
Once that decision was made, the next key, Glynn thought, was to improve Mikulski’s ability to generate swings and misses. Glynn encouraged Mikulski to experiment in the offseason.
That’s exactly what Mikulski did during the long COVID hiatus. He met with two of his friends, Anthony Fava, now the hitting coach for Iona; and Jonathan de Marte, a former minor league pitcher.
Working at The Training Zone, a New York facility owned by former East Carolina pitcher Mike Anderson, the guys took a critical look at each of Mikulski’s pitches.
“That summer, I asked (Fava and de Marte) what I could do to separate from the pack,” Mikulski said. “They said, ‘Check out (major leaguers) Robbie Ray and Lucas Giolito. They have gone to a shorter arm action, and they are throwing way harder.’
“It was a good adjustment. It reminded me of the arm action from when I played quarterback.”
Pitching With Purpose
The new delivery took about six weeks to implement, starting right after the 2020 draft. Mikulski debuted the new version of himself at a tournament in August, and he hit 97 mph for the first time in his life.
The family’s running joke is that no one outside of the people who run Amazon benefitted more from COVID than Mikulski did last year.
But even after a great summer, there was more work to do once he arrived at Fordham for the fall. That’s when Glynn made a tweak, getting Mikulski to hide the ball better.
“When we filmed it from behind the catcher, you could see the ball coming out of my glove the whole time,” Mikulski said. “We just turned my shoulders a little bit and the rest is history.”
Glynn said Mikulski deserves massive credit for the improvements.
“You can’t see the ball now until it’s out of his hand,” Glynn said. “He made 99 percent of these adjustments on his own.
“Guys who are invested in their own careers – those are the ones you want in your organization.”
But there’s more to Mikulski than just the physical dominance. There’s a sentimental side, too.
Before each start, Mikulski writes the following letters in the dirt behind the mound:
The meaning behind it is to honor some of the people in his life that he has lost. RIP, of course, is for Rest in Peace. The N is for “Nanny”, his maternal grandmother Kate Dunn, who passed away this past year on the eve of Thanksgiving. The G is for Andrew Gurgitano, a lefty pitcher and summer-league teammate who died of a seizure. S is for Sandra Mikulski, his paternal grandmother. And E is for his mom’s sister, Eileen Sheridan.
“I like to think they watch over me,” Mikulski said. “Losing them has shown me that life is precious, and it can be taken away in an instant.”
Building An Arsenal
Mikulski has destroyed opponents this year with four pitches: four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, curve.
His fastball sits 94-97 and touched 100 for the first time against Delaware on March 27, and he holds his velocity.
“He’ll see the finish line,” Glynn said. “His velo will be the same or a tick higher in late innings.”
Mikulski’s slider is thrown 86-88. It looks like a fastball initially but then disappears off the plate.
His changeup is his most improved pitch. Hitters this year are 1-for-19 with 15 strikeouts against that changeup, and 14 of those punchouts are against righthanded batters.
“He throws it with the same spin as his fastball, and he gets a ton of bad swings,” Glynn said.
The curve is thrown 76-77.
“If he gets that over,” Glynn said, “it’s impossible for hitters to cover that and a 96-97 fastball.”
This year, Mikulski is throwing his fastball 63 percent of the time, while mixing in his changeup (15 percent), slider (14 percent) and curve (8 percent). The biggest difference from his first three years is an increased reliance on the changeup, which is up from eight percent; and fewer curveballs (down from 13 percent).
Righthanded hitters batted .272, .251 and .237 against him for his first three years, but they are flailing with a .124 batting average this season.
Lefty hitters batted .234 and .184 his first two years. Last year, lefty hitters were rarely used against him (1-for-3). This year, lefties are hitting .061 against him.
Glynn and Leighton both believe Mikulski will be a first-round pick.
Mikulski is not one to disagree.
“I feel there’s no other lefthander in the draft better than me,” Mikulski said.
The only apparent knock against Mikulski is that he’s dominating at a mid-major as opposed to the Power Five level.
Mikulski scoffs at that notion.
“It doesn’t matter the name on the chest,” he said. “My stuff plays anywhere.”
Mikulski believes he’s the perpetual underdog.
“My whole life,” he said, “I’ve been overlooked.”
That perception may soon change.
Mikulski points to his most recent start against St. Joe’s as a sign of growth. He gave up a solo homer in the sixth inning.
In the past, that negative result might have snowballed on him.
“I struck out the side after that homer,” Mikulski said. “I have a way better response now.
“I’m like an MMA fighter. I just keep coming.”
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