With focus on staying healthy, Riverside ace Christian Lucarelli works tirelessly on craft

Monday, April 29, 2024 | 11:51 PM

Christian Lucarelli arrived at Riverside baseball practice with a clear, plastic sphere that was partially filled with water. The peculiar fitness tool, which has handles on the sides, is designed to strengthen core muscles.

Lucarelli uses it while simulating the twist he does on the pitcher’s mound.

“You’re supposed to move the water as fast as you can and then stop,” he said. “The water is going to be moving in the opposite direction, so it helps you work on stability and everything.”

The junior likes to keep tabs of the latest baseball trends, even if they sometimes raise an eyebrow for longtime Riverside coach Dan Oliastro. Lucarelli said Oliastro quickly noticed his new water-filled contraption made by Tidal Tank.

“He was like, ‘What is that?’” Lucarelli said with a laugh. “I told him, ‘It’s something for pitching.’ He said, ‘Interesting. Can you use it for hitting, too? … We’re going to have to start doing drills with that.’”

Now in his 56th season, the 80-year-old coach has an old-school reputation. But Lucarelli, as one of the top high school pitchers in the state, said Oliastro allows him the freedom to try new ideas.

“He’ll go with it if he sees it works,” Lucarelli said. “But he’ll always ask questions.”

The 6-foot-3, 208-pound right-hander, who has a fastball in the mid-90s and a scholarship from Duke, was the starter when Riverside won WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A titles last year.

Nowadays, he’s trying to have another championship season while learning from what some major league pitchers do to stay healthy, get stronger and throw strikes, figuring they know what’s best. There’s social media video of Pirates prospect Paul Skenes using a Tidal Tank-type cylinder in pregame warm-ups.

Lucarelli also likes to study rookie Jared Jones and has adopted some pitch grips similar to each.

“They have success, so obviously they’re doing something right,” Lucarelli said. “I like watching their mechanics and how they do things.”

Before throwing an inning in relief against North Catholic last week, Lucarelli completed a meticulous warm-up that included tossing a weighted ball against a mat on the back of the team’s dugout. He incorporated that into his routine in eighth grade and credits it for a significant boost in velocity.

His fastball has touched 96 mph in game action and hit 97 in a preseason workout.

“He’s a hard-working guy who sticks to his craft,” said first-year pitching coach Gunnar Boehm, a Riverside graduate who pitched at Tiffin. “I’ve never seen someone so committed to it at his age, especially at a small school like this. You could go hang out with your buddies or go eat Christy’s, but he’s always working to get better.”

Oliastro said the specialized tools and techniques for pitchers have changed over the years, with the weighted balls becoming common only a few decades ago. Boehm, a 2018 graduate, said he didn’t train with them until college.

“You have to go with the trends,” Oliastro said. “It wasn’t like that when I first started coaching. The pitchers may be off doing that when the other kids are stretching. At first, it bothered me because they weren’t with the team. It doesn’t anymore. I figure they’re doing what they need to do. Let them go.”

Oliastro said the early days of velocity training were risky because players and coaches didn’t know what to do. He credited Lucarelli for being well-studied in his routine.

“He understands what he needs to do without us telling him anything,” Oliastro said. “He does arm care and is very smart about it.”

Since the WPIAL saw him a year ago, Lucarelli has become even more focused on his strength and conditioning. It became his priority after arm pain forced him to shut down last summer.

Lucarelli estimated he threw close to 1,200 total pitches as a sophomore while going 8-0 with a 1.15 ERA. He struck out 119 batters in 60⅓ innings and finished Riverside’s season feeling fine.

But while pitching in San Diego at the Area Code Games, he felt pain behind his elbow. Fortunately, it wasn’t ligament related, he said, but rather a bone bruise that could’ve become a stress fracture.

“It was unbearable pain in my elbow,” Lucarelli said. “It was pretty scary. The first few throws were good. I was 90-93 mph and no pain. The second inning, it was 87 and I couldn’t hold onto the ball. There was definitely something wrong.”

The remedy was reluctant rest.

Lucarelli had already committed to a highly ranked ACC program where he’s excited to enroll, but said summer events like the Area Code Games are where top high school players catch the eye of MLB scouts. To make sure he doesn’t over-stress himself this year, his coaches have taken a measured approach to his outings.

Lucarelli, who’s scheduled to start Tuesday against Neshannock, is 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 15 innings.

“We’re being careful,” Oliastro said. “We’re trying to keep him to 80 pitches or lower, if we can. If we can’t, we won’t. But we’re trying to be careful with him so that he doesn’t get hurt.”

Maybe more importantly, Lucarelli has worked for a year to get stronger and more flexible. Most notably, his weight room regimen added almost 30 pounds to his frame.

His motivation is to again be on the mound for the WPIAL finals in late May and the state championship in June, but also knows this is his last summer to impress pro scouts before the 2025 draft.

Oliastro said “there’s no doubt” he could be in the draft conversation next year.

“Hopefully, I can get out there in the summer with a healthy body and everything,” said Lucarelli, who worked his way through a sore back in his latest outing. “Maybe pop a 97 or 98 (mph), show some really good off speed and get my name up the draft boards.”

Until then, he’ll keep pitching for Riverside (11-0, 9-0), which has a 36-game winning streak.

Lucarelli added a splitter to his arsenal this spring and improved his slider, which now has a couple of versions. He tried three or four different slider grips in the offseason before finding one he liked.

He struck out a season-high 12 in an April 8 win over Shenango. Against North Catholic on Friday, he let a couple of runners reach base but escaped unharmed with consecutive strikeouts.

“He’s got a big reputation,” said Boehm, the team’s pitching coach. “Everybody knows who he is. For him to come out here and just consistently back up the fact that he is going to Duke is a lot of fun.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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