Batters Beware: Ben Dragani destined for greatness on the mound

Thursday, May 17, 2018 - 7:14pm

Freshman left-hander Ben Dragani is having a breakout year for the Wolverines pitching in the weekend starting rotation

Freshman left-hander Ben Dragani is having a breakout year for the Wolverines pitching in the weekend starting rotation Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and freshman left-hander Ben Dragani had just completed one of the most successful outings of his college career. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at him.

The lefty had just tossed seven scoreless innings of near-perfect baseball — his furthest foray into a game — allowing only one hit and striking out five. But his face was searing with indifference. Dragani remained cool and collected, as he always does, and returned to the dugout without a word.

If one seeks to understand the complexities of Ben Dragani, they need not look further than this outing. The first-year had further cemented himself as a weekend starter for the Michigan baseball team and had absolutely humbled a Big Ten foe in Northwestern— a true cold-blooded killer on the mound.

“My grandpa and my parents always told me that don’t let people know if you’re up or you’re down or you’re winning or losing, and when I was young, I never really showed emotion,” Dragani said. “I like that aspect of people not really knowing what’s going on.”

Dragni could have just thrown a no-hitter or relented a walk-off home run to his most bitter rival, but his demeanor would stay the same. Dragni maintains a famously stern glare that burrows into the confidence of the opposing batter an expression consistently molded onto his face week in and week out.

His emotionless look screams, “I dare you to hit this.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this ice cold demeanor is the ability to leave emotion in the dugout and pitch through any situation.

“He looks well beyond his years when he’s out there,” said Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter. “No matter what the situation, he’s calm, cool, collected. You never see too many peaks or valleys, it’s just kind of consistent Ben. As a starter, a guy that you want to get multiple zeros in a row, you need that to go deep into a ball game.”

Earlier in the season, Dragani was in the midst of a pitching duel against Michigan State’s Ethan Landon. Both pitchers refused to relent a run deep into the game. In a contest where a single run could prove to be the difference, elite pitching was desperately needed by both teams — and Dragani delivered.

In the bottom of the fifth inning with the game still scoreless, Dragani started things off with a strikeout. Then after walking a batter on four straight pitches, the runner advanced to second on a groundout to second base. After a rocket hit off the bat of the Spartan’s Dan Chmielewski was mishandled by freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren, Dragani was facing a runner on third with two outs.

A mere 90 feet away from salvation, Dragani perfectly placed a ball inside that allowed for a routine fly out to right field to end the inning, stranding two runners and setting Michigan up to win the game.

Emotionless and methodical — that is the legend of Ben Dragani.

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Dragani’s ascent to weekend starter did not come quickly — or easily.

It took an injury to last year’s pitching standout, senior Alec Rennard, and the Wolverines falling to a horrendous 4-11 record for the lefty to see the starting rotation.

It’s a story as old as time. The leader falls, and the next man up must rise to the occasion and fill the role the team so desperately needs. More often than not, the opportunity is squandered. But for a lucky few, a lifetime of greatness is born. Heck, it’s even how Michigan legend Tom Brady got his start.

However, Dragani was not always the golden boy on the mound for the Wolverines. Like nearly the entire freshman class and the team as a whole, he struggled in his first few appearances out of the bullpen.

In only his second appearance for Michigan, Dragani took the mound against a formidable opponent in Arizona in the midst of a bruising west coast road trip. The first-year didn’t make it out of the inning — walking two batters and giving up two runs.

“I had been the starter for all of high school, and the first couple of times (in relief, I) didn’t do so hot, but it just kind of changed my mindset,” Dragani said. “Just attack, just kind of feeling it out and I think that’s what helped me as a reliever.”

Whatever adjustments he made worked. Dragani would go on to become a rare bright spot in the Wolverines’ tailspin of a season. Dominating with his lethal off-speed pitches, the lefty tossed a combined 9.1 scoreless innings of relief and eventually earned the weekend starting nod against Bowling Green.

What allowed him to do this? Over everything else, one thing sets Dragani apart from the rest: his preparation.

“He’s absolutely consistent in his preparation, his day-to-day work ethic,” Fetter said. “He’s very in tune with what he’s doing on a daily basis, what he’s doing on his delivery, and he just has a great knowledge on the art of pitching. He’s a true competitor on the mound and he can throw three pitches for strikes at any point in the count, so he’s just a pleasure to work with.”

As a pitcher, Dragani’s greatest strengths come from his fastball, slider, changeup, a newly-found curveball and a command of the strike zone. In fact, the lefty is so dialed into his attack mindset that one of the larger gaps in his game is that he finds the strike zone too often.

“He’s such a strike thrower that he stays in the zone maybe too much sometimes,” Fetter said.

Fetter’s hopes for Dragani are that with two strikes in the count, the first-year will have a greater command of where he places his off-speed pitches as well as adding last-minute tails on his sliders and curveballs, meant to discombobulate the batter.

In terms of the young hurler’s ceiling? If he keeps on this trajectory, the sky's the limit.

“I think he’s just scratching the surface,” Fetter said. “You have a guy who has an enormous feel to pitch, so he can throw three pitches for strikes any point in the count. Now, it’s all about refining those pitches. Making sure the slider’s as sharp as we can make it.”

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Before donning the maize and blue and powering to a top-five earned run average in the Big Ten, Dragani prepared for next level baseball at Catholic Memorial High School in Brookfield, Wis.

It was here under the tutelage of coach Tim Gotzler that Dragani’s famed stoicism and elite pitching instincts were born.

Gotzler was made well aware of his pitcher's internal fire early in their days working together. In his sophomore year, Dragani had just completed a rough outing on the mound. While not giving up many hard hits, the lefty had lost some of his famed control and walked too many batters for Gotzler's liking.

With such an uncharacteristic performance, Gotzler was naturally concerned about the mental state of his star pitcher. So the next day in meetings, the coach asked what was wrong. Crudely responding, “Coach, I’ll fix it,” Dragani’s response seemed dismissive. It didn’t take Gotzler long to realize this was just how the kid was wired.

“Part of me for a second was a little put off by him, like, who did this kid think he is? Who did this sophomore think he is? But in Ben’s world, and he’s pretty blunt, he knows himself well, so he’s gonna go in and fix it,” Gotzler said.

“He’s so in tune with his craft that he analyzes things as a pitcher and a baseball player, not as just a kid who plays baseball.”

As a four year starter on the mound for the Crusaders, Dragani racked up quite the resume. It wasn’t until his senior year, however, that he earned the mother of all high school baseball awards: Gatorade Player of the Year.

Through his meticulous routine and emotionless, methodical approach to pitching, Dragani was crowned the state of Wisconsin’s greatest student-athlete in the sport of baseball.

For any normal teenage athlete, this is an earth-shattering event. You train your entire life to excel in an athletic capacity, and you are finally given recognition at the highest level.

But Dragani was not and is not a normal teenage athlete.

“I think Ben was as shocked as anybody,” Gotzler said. “He doesn’t like awards and accolades. He doesn’t care about all-conference or all-state. I’m sure it’s nice to have as memorabilia, but he never chased those things.

“He was always chasing to get better, chasing to get wins for the team.”

It’s natural to show emotion on the mound. It’s natural to bask in the glory of your accomplishments. It’s even natural to become complacent with the level of opportunity afforded to you.

But this is what makes Dragani truly remarkable. He goes against the grain of expected behavior and respects how unique his situation truly is.

The less flashy but equally as important aspect of winning the Gatorade Player of the Year is how a player conducts themselves off the field. For Dragani, this meant spending valuable free time carrying out service projects and investing time with the Special Olympics.

“Ben always knew how fortunate he was,” Gotzler said. “He has strong parents and siblings and grandparents, and Ben always knew he had more opportunities than most kids. To play travel baseball, to go to private school, but he understood that not everyone has those opportunities, so to work with the Special Olympics and to connect with people that he wouldn’t normally connect with was a really humbling process for him and also helped him grow from a boy into a man.”

Just as integral to his success as his internal motivation and demeanor, Dragani’s parents and family provide a tight-knit, supportive network that the first-year can always fall back on.

Dragani’s grandfather was perhaps the largest role model in the freshman’s life, crafting his interests and personality from an early age. Playing baseball at Wisconsin, his grandfather had first-hand experience for playing baseball at the next level and served as a shining role model for Dragani. In addition, his grandfather would often travel great lengths to watch his grandson pitch.

From following the Cubs together to going out and talking baseball over rounds of golf, these two have a special grandson-grandfather relationship that few teens share.

“To have a grandfather and parents, different generations of people sending the same message was always really powerful for him and allowed him to digest that information,” Gotzler said. “Just a tight core family that always had Ben’s best interests in mind, but also teaching him how to bounce back from things, teaching him how to be a good teammate, teaching him how to be a leader.”

Now as he leaves his high school days behind him and looks to expand his baseball legacy beyond the confines of Catholic Memorial High School, the stoic left-handed pitcher from Brookfield has all the pieces to do great things.

With nearly one year of lockdown college ball under his belt, one thing is perfectly clear: this is just the beginning.