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Mudcats pitcher uses intellect on the mound

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ZEBULON — Carolina Mudcat pitcher Noah Zavolas raised his GPA long before her ever lowered his ERA.

The Harvard University graduate has taken that prestigious diploma straight to the top of the Carolina League hill after increasing his baseball IQ amid that Ivy League career. In fact, he made a monumental mound leap between his junior and senior Crimson campaigns.

After going 3-6 with a 5.95 earned run average with 41 strikeouts over 56 frames, Zavolas zapped a 6-1 mark with a 2.96 ERA and 77 fans over 70 innings his last go-round. He even notched a 12-strikeout no-hitter vs. archrival Yale.

The crowning moment never did make him king of that campus, though.

“Sports are not all that vocal at Harvard. Imagine that,” Zavolas said. “It got some good press locally and nationally but, at the end of the day, it was just another win for the Crimson. For me, personally, it was a wonderful night. I was lucky enough to have my family there. And I was almost perfect. Even when I missed, it was by centimeters and not feet. So it was a special night.”

Those overall senior numbers and that signature feat equated to conference pitcher of the year status.

Zavolas credits a valuable stint with the Charleston Townies as well as two stints amid the summer Cape Cod League as the real spark for a fine college farewell.

“I was there with no guarantee of a position or even a long stay,” he said. “I had to earn a spot through my performance, and that meant really focusing and bringing my best every opportunity I received. It was day-to-day. I could be gone or I could be kept. I was eventually given a full contract. Until then, it was bits and pieces here and there.”

Intense pressure makes diamonds from carbon, and it evolved a similar transformation in Zavolas. He was professionally drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2018, then spent two terms among that organization posting a 3.49 ERA with 41 strikeouts compared to just 11 walks over 38.2 frames. He was next traded to the Milwaukee Brewers.

That explains his arrival in high Single-A Zebulon. Being a student of the game defines his current All-Star status. Zavolas stands at 4-3 overall and fires a 3.21 ERA alongside 87 hits, 64 strikeouts and 12 walks over a team-best 84 innings so far.

His most recent appearance generated the circuit’s first complete game shutout this year. He retired the opening nine swingers he faced, then sat down the last 16 in order. Only the seventh nine-inning blanking in all of Minor League Baseball this whole schedule became the Mudcats’ first such achievement since 2010.

“I think being labeled a cerebral pitcher kind of pigeon holes you,” Zavolas said, dismissing any suggestion he is all brain and no brawn. “I certainly do pitch off my instincts. I just don’t describe myself as someone who agonizes for hours over scouting reports. I did not have access to them in school, so they did not become a vital part of my preparation routine. A typical start day for me involves relaxing in the morning, clearing my mind then coming to the park to get the lay of the land. Then, when it’s time, I go out there and try to take a laser focus to the task at hand with me.”

The Mariners threw him a curve last year by making him a long reliever instead of the starting role he was accustomed.

“I eventually found my rhythm there, even if it was not my comfort zone,” Zavolas said. “This opportunity with the Brewers puts me back more into my natural wheelhouse. I am grateful for the chance. And I believe I have proven to have some value.”

Certainly his poise has contributed to his Carolina League praise.

“My coaches, my dad, they always stressed to me the importance of always being conscientious of mound presence,” Zavolas said. “Never let the opposition know you are flustered. So, good or bad, I let my emotions or my frustration out before I climb back up and face the next batter. Then I re-hone in on what is right in front of me, not what is right behind me. The key is to mitigate any damage rather than aggravate it.”

Though his fastball eludes elite ability, it is made effective by his command.

“I do a good job of setting it up. That way, it does not have to be overwhelming straight up. But I mix up my other pitches enough to keep hitters from sitting on the fastball and teeing off on it exclusively,” Zavolas said. “And, of course, I do love my changeup. I just don’t live and die by it, even though I will throw it at any point in any count without hesitation. I also depend on being precise and emphasizing location over velocity.”

However, where he came from definitely accelerated his acclimation.

“A place like Harvard is wide open. Baseball may not be the conventional path through, but it is the one I took. I was privileged to do so,” said Zavolas, who was working as a grad assistant in the English department during the offseason. “I did have to qualify academically to be there, so that set a standard of performance I had to meet off the field. But, believe me, there are a lot of smart guys right beside me on this roster here. I would not pick myself as the clubhouse’s Jeopardy champion either, because I get whipped in other types of trivia battles all the time.”

Still, the scholar can teach a few things about the art of surprise. When asked what he would be if not a professional athlete, he did not choose professor or writer or business mogul or any other academic cliche.

“I’d be a fine furniture maker,” Zavolas noted, turning the tables on any preconceptions. “Both my grandfather and father were great with their hands and, since I was blessed to grow up around them and what they could do, I developed an interest in that expertise. Building things from nothing has always been a passion of mine.”

Creative desire has already begun construction of a solid career in the center circle.