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Summer Ball: Rosenblum-Larson, Zavolas Go Pro

Two of Harvard baseball's top pitchers were drafted and joined the minor league ranks over the summer.

Focused
Simon Rosenblum-Larson stares in for the sign during a 2017 game against Brown.
After dominant performances in their junior and senior seasons, respectively, both Simon Rosenblum-Larson and Noah Zavolas left the Harvard baseball team to pursue professional ball in the minor leagues this past summer.

“There’s two good kids who just came through our program,” said Bill Decker, Harvard’s baseball coach. “Everybody’s happy for the two. It’s a really nice story.”

Simon Rosenblum-Larson, a Madison, Wi. native, was a member of the Crimson baseball team since his freshman year at Harvard. Over the course of his three years playing college ball, the thing that stood out was personal growth, both in terms of his strength and conditioning progress and his mental presence on the mound, according to Decker.

Simon was mostly a relief pitcher during his freshman year. Though he had found great success pitching at Madison West High School, the adjustment to college-level baseball was not easy.

“As a freshman, I was not very good,” Simon matter-of-factly commented. “I had a lot of trouble with command, I had a lot of trouble with my mechanics, and I really was not comfortable on the mound at all. I just wasn’t prepared to pitch in college.”

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Though not a member of the starting rotation, Simon was able to adapt to his new environment. He cites former pitching coach, Mike Zandler, as the impetus for this development.

“He really worked with me, especially late in the season, on rebuilding my mechanics,” Simon said. “If you saw a video of me throwing now versus me throwing then, it would look like two different pitchers.”

“He really worked on his body and physical growth,” Decker commented. “He learned to pitch using both sides of the plate. He learned to attack you, and he could attack you with three pretty good pitches.”

After a year coming out of the bullpen, Rosenblum-Larson was ready to increase his presence on the mound. Coming into his sophomore season, he was a much better pitcher, and consistently threw each weekend. Even so, he struggled a bit on the mound, and didn’t pitch quite as well as he would have liked to. He continued to constantly fine-tune his mechanics with pitching coach Ron Rakowski.

“We worked together constantly on fine-tuning mechanics and really rebuilding my body,” Simon said. “My command got a lot better and my feel for my offspeed got a lot better.”

Simon kept on improving, and late in that season he reached a turning point. In a pivotal game against Brown, his performance solidified his spot in the starting rotation and proved that he could compete on a high level.

“My arm slot dropped a bit, I was throwing harder, I was throwing a lot more strikes,” Simon said. “That was my second to last start my sophomore year. Something clicked. I felt something that I hadn’t felt in a long time.”

“That was the game where I said, ‘That’s the guy,’” Decker added. “He was lights out, he was unhittable, and I think that was a turning point for him, where he finally says, ‘You know what, I can get this thing done.’”

Lights out he was. Simon pitched six innings with eleven strikeouts and just one earned run in the Crimson’s victory. Along with the obvious physical comfort on the mound came a mental comfort that Rosenblum-Larson would carry with him going forward.

“I said to myself, ‘You know what, I have two starts left. I’m going to have as much fun as I can on the mound, throw it as hard as I can and hope good things happen,’” Rosenblum-Larson said with a chuckle. “There was this looseness that I took into that start that flipped the switch for me. It was mental focus but it wasn’t intensity. It was this kind of relaxed focus.”

The mental presence on the mound was always Rosenblum-Larson’s biggest challenge, and a focal point of Decker’s role as Simon’s coach.

“He’s a competitive person,” Decker said. “My thing with Simon was just to calm him down sometimes. He learned not to get too upset when things weren’t going his way. I think he did a really good job working on his mindset, which is not an easy thing to do.”

Rosenblum-Larson carried this mentality through to his junior year, when he put up the best stats of his career (2.86 earned runs average and 82 strikeouts in 63 innings pitched), despite the added pressure of having scouts in the stands. He’d internalized the lessons he learned in seasons past and had a different approach to pitching. These lessons he would carry with him into the minor leagues.

“That’s something that I’ve taken into pro ball,” he said. “Learning these lessons about how to handle these moments of pressure, these moments of frustration, and using them to relax yourself, relax your mind and compete at a high level.”

After his junior season, the right-hander faced a difficult decision. He was selected with the 570th overall pick in the 19th round of the 2018 MLB Draft, a day he described as the best day of his life, something he’d been thinking about every day since he first picked up a baseball. Even so, accepting the offer would mean leaving Harvard after just three years. Ultimately, he decided to follow his heart and pursue professional baseball with Tampa Bay Rays.

“He came in here last May and made his decision to move on and leave Harvard after his junior year, which is not an easy one,” Decker said. “Selfishly, for the program, I wish he had stayed, but what I did tell him is that, ‘If you’re going to go [this summer], don’t come back here in the fall.’ And I’m glad he took my advice.”

Simon felt confident and comfortable in Single-A ball, though he once again found himself coming out of the bullpen instead of starting. He liked the looser approach to the game, with minimal involvement from the manager and the coaching staff. Despite a definitive increase in talent in the hitters he faced, he was able to take the lessons he learned playing baseball in the Ancient Eight and apply them to elevate his game.

“Ivy League hitters are sometimes tougher to get out than pro hitters,” he commented. “They might not be as athletically talented, but they sure know how to work a count, take pitches, be selective, and really get in your head as a pitcher. Some guys in pro ball may have more loose approaches where they’re more free-swinging or they’re willing to expand the zone at times, and I was able to take advantage of that.”

The major adjustment to his game he had to make regarded his new role on the pitching staff. Simon had to get used to a schedule during which he would pitch multiple times in a week for shorter durations, as opposed to once for an extended period. Even so, after building a sustainable routine, he was able to commit to the same lifting and body-care practices he utilized in college ball.

“The same things I learned in college I took with me to pro ball,” he said. “I can’t say enough how much developing at Harvard affected by ability to adjust to pro ball. All in all, it was a pretty easy adjustment period. It was a lot of fun, and it’s the kind of thing I thrive in.”

He cites one game against the Vermont Lake Monsters in the Short Single-A Penn League as his finest moment in the minor leagues so far. Simon came in for the seventh inning and struck out the first two batters he faced. He ended up finishing the game with six strikeouts in 2.2 innings, and with those stats, added confidence akin to the boost he felt after his sophomore year game against Brown.

“It was this moment where I was like, ‘Yeah I can compete. I can hang,’” he said. “You start to believe in your stuff and believe in your abilities. That was the moment where I grew into my new shoes.”

After continuing to pitch well in Short Single-A, Simon moved up to Full Single-A ball. There, he got the opportunity to pitch in game three of the championship series. He struck out six batters and picked up the save, setting up the Bowling Green Hot Rods to win the championship the following day.

“That’s what we play for,” Simon excitedly said. “Getting a chance to be a part of that was just so cool.”

Simon finished the season with a 1.16 earned run average and 62 strikeouts in 38.2 innings pitched across two levels of Single-A ball. He looks to continue growing once next season begins, whether as a starter or as a reliever.

“I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I’m hoping that I can just keep my head to the grindstone and keep working,” he mused. “That’s what’s gotten me here and that’s what’s hopefully going to get me to the next level.”

Going Pro
Righty Noah Zavolas, shown here in action last year, was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 18th round of the 2018 MLB Draft.
Noah Zavolas traversed a different path through Harvard baseball. Due to his size, he started off with a fair share of doubters about his place in college baseball. For the majority of his time recruiting during high school, Harvard was not on his list. However, he put himself in the right place at the right time at the Crimson’s prospect camp, and the Harvard coaching staff saw potential in the way he attacked pitching.

“Noah came into our prospect camp entering his senior year, and he was very good,” Coach Decker said. “It wasn’t like he was tipping 90 [miles per hour] or anything like that, but he showed some presence on the mound. He just got hitters out. You could see that he was a student of the game.”

Noah played on the Crimson baseball team since his freshman year. Also like Simon, Noah needed time to adjust to playing Division I baseball.

“My whole freshman and sophomore years were spent trying to figure out how to make myself a pitcher that could actually help a Division I pitching staff,” Zavolas said. “There was a lot of trial and error and a lot of frustration during my first two years here.”

The turning point for Noah came when he played summer ball in the Yawkey League out of Boston. As a member of the Charlestown Townies, Noah was able to develop his game in a relaxed setting.

“That was a place where I could play the game, pitch every week, and work on the craft of pitching,” he commented. “I was able to become the pitcher I knew I could be.”

Noah returned to school a completely transformed pitcher. Much more confident in his abilities, he had a solid junior year and was able to earn himself a starting spot in the rotation, as well as a spot in the Cape Cod League the following summer. There, he continued to defy expectations, and described those nine weeks as “single greatest experience of [his] life.”

“Being down there, I was adopted into community where they eat, sleep, and breathe baseball. That was perfect for me,” he said. “I had some phenomenal coaches down there who saw what I could do and believed in me.”

An excited Zavolas came back to Harvard ready to embark upon a senior campaign and showcase the fruits of his effort. Unfortunately, he broke his left foot in the fall. He had to take a little time off school to have surgery, and came back during the offseason determined to take strength and conditioning seriously in order to not lose the gains he had made before his injury.

“It was an opportunity in terms of being really creative in the weight room and trying different strength and conditioning ideas, seeing what I could do to make myself better,” Noah said. “Fortunately, things worked out well enough that the foot healed a few days before the team came back to campus for spring practices.”

Coming off the injury, Zavolas was driven to prove that he could still compete at a high level and make a meaningful contribution to the pitching staff, that the injury had not derailed his career at Harvard. And prove himself he did. Zavolas had a great senior season — bolstered by increased velocity and a better understanding of the art of pitching — that legitimized the summer ball he played in Cape Cod.

The team started off hot during Noah’s senior campaign, winning the Beanpot in early April. As a senior, this win was especially meaningful to Zavolas. Though it did not contribute towards the Crimson’s Ivy League record, he felt that he had left his mark through that championship victory. A few days later, in the star moment of both his senior year and his time as a member of the Crimson squad, Noah threw a no-hitter against Yale on April 13.

“That was absolutely a high point of the year,” he said. “The stars aligned in New Haven that Friday night. I think back to it and it just doesn’t seem real.”

“The way he focused, he was just a really locked-in guy,” Decker said. “My relationship with Noah on game day was just to leave him alone. Let him do his thing. There was a trust there that I had with Noah.”

Noah struck out twelve and allowed zero runs and zero hits in the nine inning win. He finished up his senior year with the best stats of his career: a 2.96 earned runs average with 77 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched. He was selected by the Seattle Mariners with the 538th overall pick in the 18th round of the 2018 MLB Draft, what he described as a “wild day.” Being drafted represented overcoming the doubts he had faced for years.

“In some ways, he’s been an inspiration to some of the other guys,” Decker offered. “If you keep working hard, you never know what can happen.”

Minor league ball was different from Ivy League ball. Even so, the adjustment was nothing that Zavolas couldn’t handle. Like Simon, Noah actually preferred the professional schedule over the collegiate one.

“In pro ball, it’s every day, and in a lot of ways, I think that schedule is easier and more conducive to baseball even though it’s more constant and ubiquitous,” Zavolas said. “The ability to create and perpetuate a rhythm where you follow the same routine every day makes the game a little bit more relaxed.”

The improved competition of the minor leagues did pose a challenge to Zavolas. The average minor league hitter comes from a larger, more talented player pool than the Ivy League draws from, such as a large school with a strong baseball program or Latin America. All are eager to prove themselves, which leads to more high-risk, high-reward at-bats that Noah was able to exploit.

“Competition-wise, there was a relatively dramatic step up in terms of the talent that you’d face,” he said. “ I had to make some adjustments, especially in pitch selection and strategy. Guys are more aggressive in pro ball, but adjusting to that was about just learning how to read hitters’ swings. I had to do that in the Ivy League, but now I had to make different inferences based on what I saw.”

Noah’s team, the Everett AquaSox in the Short Single-A Northwest League, was very good. The minor league season is split up into two halves, and they outright won the first half. This guaranteed them a spot in the playoffs at the end of the season, from which they also emerged victorious.

“They had sparkling cider, in the big bottles where everyone sprayed it on each other,” Noah said. “It was the minor league version of the clubhouse celebrations that you see on TV. And that was special just because I had never been a part of anything like that.”

The first playoff game in that series, on Sept. 5, was especially meaningful to Noah. Like Simon, he came out of the bullpen all year, so he had very little advance knowledge about if and when he would be pitching. That game, however, he ended up coming in, and had a performance he’ll never forget.

“It was actually the first time my dad had been able to come out all the way to the other side of the country and see me pitch, so when I got the call to go into the game it was pretty cool to know that he was in the stands for it,” Noah said. “I wound up pitching about four innings, did very well, and at the end of the game it was pretty wild to lock eyes with him in the stands. We both shook our heads, [recognizing] how it’s tough to believe that baseball has brought us both out here and everywhere in between.”

Noah finished the season with a 3.03 earned run average and 41 strikeouts in 38.2 innings pitched. He is back at Harvard right now, working as a research assistant in the English Department, and looks forward to heading to Arizona for spring training in March.

While Simon and Noah are two completely different pitchers who took two completely different paths to professional baseball, they are going through this journey together.

“Simon and I became really good friends as we moved up,” said Noah. “We’re always in constant contact, keeping each other updated but also shooting the breeze and talking about different aspects of pitching.”

The mutual respect they have for each other is evident. “Noah is a stud,” Simon put it simply.

Decker certainly misses the two, but is thankful for the opportunity to coach them for those years.

“We arguably had two of the best guys in the league last year,” he said. “They were the leaders of our staff.” He jokingly added, “But I know that some of our competitors are happy that they’re gone.”

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