Friday, April 12, 2013
The Record

 Willie Krajnik isn’t an anonymous ace anymore.

The St. Mary junior right-hander can’t be. Not after Monday’s eye-popping 20-strikeout performance in a 2-1 victory over Weehawken that left North Jersey baseball watchers buzzing about the newest power arm in town.

“He’s been raising some eyebrows,” said St. Mary coach Dennis Hulse. “I think he’s starting to get rid of that title ‘Unknown Pitcher.’ ”

While that 20-strikeout performance may have been Krajnik’s coming out party, it really was just a matter of time before he found his way into the spotlight. He pitched some high-profile games last season, and will be on the mound Saturday afternoon at Tamblyn Field when the Gaels play host to Non-Public A power Gloucester Catholic, the No 1 team in the Top 10 rankings.

“I’m excited about that one,” said Krajnik, who lives in Lyndhurst. “After Monday, it feels like I have a bigger reputation now. People are going to be watching, looking to see how I react after that game.”

Krajnik (1-1) has 31 strikeouts in 14 innings pitched this season, including two as he picked up the save in Saturday’s big win over Millburn, a team ranked in the top 10 in the state. He lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to a Ridgefield team ranked No. 9 in The Record baseball Top 25, and he drew Weehawken’s highly touted ace, Sal Mendez, as an opponent Monday.

Hulse said he believes that the foundation for Krajnik’s strong start was laid in the Non-Public B state tournament last spring. Krajnik pitched very well, taking a shutout into the sixth inning in a game the Gaels lost to Montclair Kimberley.

“That left a bitter taste in his mouth,” Hulse said. “I think he went into the off-season thinking about that loss.

“He’s also a football player, and he hit the weights hard last summer. He came back this year wanting to throw a complete game every game.”

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Krajnik, who is going to step in as the Gaels quarterback in September, said he has become more of a pitcher this season. He has a fastball that was clocked in the high 80s at the end of Monday’s game, and throws two different curveballs.

“One is his biggest weapon,” Hulse said. “He can drop that in for a strike, and it’s better than most high school pitchers. He also has a change-up he really hasn’t shown yet.”

Krajnik said he didn’t realize how many strikeouts he had against Weehawken until the end of the game. Hulse said Krajnik is very focused on the mound, but the football side of him seems to always keep him in overdrive.

“He thinks like a linebacker,” Hulse said. “On the bench between innings, it’s always, ‘Let’s go, Let’s go, rah, rah, rah.’ We have to tell him to go sit on the end of the bench and relax.”

Krajnik, who plays third base when he’s not pitching, is a team-first player who has no trouble looking beyond his own numbers, even when they are as gaudy as the ones he put up against Weehawken. He knows Gloucester Catholic is going to be a major challenge for him, but he’s looking more toward what this game can mean for the Gaels.

“To me, if we can play with this team, we will have a huge shot at a state title,” Krajnik said. “That’s what’s important.”

Krajnik has dreams of a college scholarship, and in addition to pitching for the Lyndhurst American Legion team this summer, he’s making plans to attend some national showcase events. That’s where his reputation should really blossom.

“He’s a baseball player, and there’s no reason to believe he’s not going to be a Division I pitcher,” Hulse said. “I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that.”