Image credit: (Photo courtesy of Mississippi State)
Eric Cerantola wasn’t born to pitch.
Though it’s easy to forget when the 6-foot-5, 220-pound righthander takes the mound as Mississippi State’s Saturday night starter, as yet another pitcher in the SEC throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s and hitting triple digits, Cerantola grew up in the way stereotypical Canadians do—in hockey.
The Quebec-born, Ontario-raised hurler can certainly give credit for his athletic prowess to his parents, Lucy and Franco, and he can thank his gene pool for his size, too. But the transition from the ice to the diamond is all due to his arm.
A year before Cerantola would be selected in the eighth round of the 2016 Ontario Hockey League draft, former big leaguer Adam Stern—also director of player development for the Great Lake Canadians program, as well as Canadian supervisor for the Kansas City Royals—got a glimpse of the then-15-year-old playing the outfield for his local baseball team, and what he saw intrigued him from the start.
“There was a ball hit to right field and a play at the plate,” Stern said. “I saw this tall, lanky kid pick up the ball in the outfield and throw a screamer to home plate. At his age, 15-year-old players don’t often throw the ball like that from the outfield. … We brought him in and he had pitched a bit, but obviously we wanted to see the arm more. The minute he picked up the baseball, it came out of his hand differently. Obviously he had limited baseball miles under his belt, but it was special.”
What Cerantola needed then was the same thing he needs right now, as the junior righty looks to help the Bulldogs win and simultaneously continue to raise his draft stock (currently at No. 39)—repetitions on the mound. Six years ago, Stern and the Great Lake Canadians were willing to work around his hockey schedule in order to see what could happen the more Cerantola got on the hill. What resulted was a cycle of success and confidence, one leading to the other and then reversing course right back, culminating in a love for the game that overtook an ingrained passion for hockey.
“I came in mostly a full-time hockey player and my pitching took off because of the development they offer at Great Lake, and I fell in love with the game,” Cerantola said. “I loved the game already but it gave me an added boost, and that was the biggest thing that really got me into baseball. Hockey was going really well, but they helped convince me baseball was what I wanted to continue.
“Working with guys like Stern, Chris Robinson, and at the time Adam Arnold, it was a great group of guys with a lot of experience. We created great relationships and I still keep in touch with them. I’ve had a blast working with those guys and being part of the Great Lake Canadians family.”
But now, six years after his initial introduction to his ever-expanding baseball family, Cerantola is once again seeking as much time on the mound as possible. When the college season came to an early end last year in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and the Cape Cod League was subsequently cancelled, he returned home to Oakville, Ont. There, he had enough of a gym setup in his parents’ basement to get some decent lifts in, a net to throw to when he cranked up the velo too high for his dad to play catch with him, and a plan formulated by Mississippi State pitching coach Scott Foxhall.
“My mindset was that it’s the people who don’t do anything during these times who are going to fall behind, so it’s a matter of getting ahead and using the time effectively, even in tough circumstances,” Cerantola said. “I was really looking forward to this season we’re in right now. It’s about the team— we have a chance to go to Omaha and possibly win the first national championship here at Mississippi State—that’s what it’s all about. The bottom line is to go out there, do my job, get however many innings deep and give my team a chance to win that day.”
Bullpens aside, Cerantola didn’t truly get back on the hill until the fall. Fall ball competition gave him a chance not only to shake off some of the rust of a summer that wasn’t the same as any other, but also a list of notes to work through at home over the winter break with his Great Lake family before returning to Starkville ahead of the season.
“I worked with Shane Davis and Stern,” he said. “We were able to break the delivery down and clean up my mechanics, so now I feel really good mechanically and with the consistency of my pitches. Overall, and not necessarily about velocity, but my stuff is better.”
Consistency has eluded Cerantola in his first two appearances of the season and his control has been erratic. After missing his team’s opening weekend, he has yet to record an out in the fourth inning in either of his first two starts. He’s walked seven and struck out seven over 5.1 innings. Struggles to locate his fastball have kept him from being able to blow away hitters with his exceptional velocity, and he’s been hittable in the early going—allowing nine hits, responsible for his 11.81 ERA. But he’s young, and the guys who saw the beginning of his latest adjustment period firsthand, and worked with him on that consistency, efficiency, control, and having his arm on time with his front foot landing, look forward to what might be yet to come.
“Now it’s trying to simplify,” Davis, a former Blue Jays farmhand, said. “He has that natural ability, whether it’s the spin rate on his breaking ball or the ride on his fastball, and there are not a lot of guys who come by that naturally, so it’s trying to hone that in. … His first couple outings obviously weren’t as successful as he wants but he understands he’s got to keep doing what he’s doing and eventually it will translate on the mound.”
From a 2016 hockey draft class that has already graduated four NHLers from its 15 rounds, to becoming a 30th-round pick of the Rays in the 2018 MLB draft, to a season of Saturday night starts for Mississippi State that will dictate his future draft fate, there’s little doubt Certantola has come a long way. But the question remains—what is yet to come?
“People might not have an appreciation for his story because he does pitch in the SEC for the No. 2-ranked school, but he wasn’t born to do it,” Stern said. “He’s still a puppy on the mound, in a good way. It’s typical of a lot of northern guys, especially hockey-first players, to take time. And with minimal season last year, no summer ball, that was crucial development time for a guy like Eric.”
“You think about what he could be five years from now, and that’s just as exciting as it was when he was 15,” Davis said. “On the professional side, that’s what everybody looks at. It’s not about what you’re going to be now; it’s what you could be in three to five years. I think back to some of the guys I played with or against in pro ball, and I don’t see why he couldn’t be as good as any of those guys.”