Pitching coach is Ray Napientek's only official title, but the fifth-year coach has a multitude of other jobs on the NIU baseball team.
Napientek is the man behind the scenes responsible for coddling, scolding and joking with NIU's pitchers. Each pitcher forces Napientek to alter his coaching philosophy in some way to better support the pitcher and the team.
"Some guys need to be hugged, and some guys need to be kicked in the behind," Napientek said. "I think it's an evolution, to see what kind of personality they are, whether or not you can push them in a certain situation."
Senior Jeremy Gonzales is notorious around the NIU clubhouse for his intense attitude on the mound, while right-hander Zach Oates is a part of a roaming group of jokesters that use off-days to play pranks on teammates.
"We have a pretty loose group as it is," Oates said. "We are always playing pranks on each other, but [Napientek's] great at letting us stay loose before starts."
Differing personalities may separate Oates and Gonzales, but they are brought together through their respective places in NIU's weekend rotation. Oates pitches on Fridays and Gonzales takes the ball on Sundays. The staff as a whole has earned a 17-17 record this season with a 5.33 ERA.
Gonzales (4-4, 5.54 ERA) had a 26 scoreless innings streak snapped last Sunday in Ohio. The senior gave up eight runs in two innings against the Bobcats, but the poor start was a shock after not allowing a run in nearly a month.
The streak started after Napientek fixed a mechanical flaw in Gonzales' delivery during a stretch of games over spring break.
"Jeremy was over rotating in his windup and stretch," Napientek said. "He was having a hard time getting his arm out front, his body and leg were going too fast for his arm, his arm wasn't catching up, and he was missing up and away to lefties, and in to righties."
Oates (3-5, 4.28) hasn't had a major overhaul on his delivery this year. The senior righty instead considers himself the result of one of Napientek's many multi-year projects. Coming in as a freshman, Oates didn't even know if the ball would reach the catcher. The newbie carried with him a 60-mph curveball that even he knew wouldn't fly at the college level. It was up to Napientek to mold Oates into the staff ace he is today.
"Over my freshman, sophomore, and even junior year, he stayed close, helping me develop a slider and change up," Oates said. "I've done a complete 180 since I first came here."
An experienced pitching staff, featuring eight upperclassmen, has been a big part of the Huskies' (17-17 overall, 8-4 MAC) winning 17 of their last 24 games, after starting the year 0-10. Napientek credits the mindset of his pitchers.
"The biggest thing about this pitching staff is they understand their roles," Napientek said. "We only have three weekend starters, and everybody wants to be one, but they understand if they're not. They understand if I bring them in in the middle of the fifth inning, that out is just as important as any other."