A journey from closer to ace

Redshirt sophomore Orion Kerkering had a career-high 10 strikeouts in his six innings of work against Brown on March 6, where he earned his second win of the season. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Pitching is the most isolated position in team sports. When USF redshirt sophomore Orion Kerkering steps onto the mound, all of the emotion not shown on his face is hurled into each pitch.

There are a few pitchers in the USF baseball bullpen that instill fear into their opponents. Kerkering is one of them. Standing at 6-foot-2, the Venice native has developed into one of the Bulls’ best arms. 

He’s been the rare type of talent that’s used in multiple roles during his time with the program. While at USF, Kerkering has climbed the ranks of the bullpen and turned himself into one of the best starters in the rotation after serving as the team’s closer in the past few seasons.

It all started at Venice High School, where he was the main man in the rotation.

“High school I was more of a starter, I didn’t get to varsity until my junior year. But then they put me in a starting role. So I just went with it,” Kerkering said. 

In his career at Venice, he was part of the 2018 and 2019 state championship teams, racking up a whopping 214 strikeouts to go along with a 1.05 ERA. He was also ranked as the 17th-best right-handed pitcher in Florida by Perfect Game.

After dominating in high school,  he caught the attention of the USF baseball program. In his first season with the Bulls in 2019-20, he knew it would be challenging to be the team’s main man. 

“When I got here, I knew it was going to be tough to battle for a starting role,” Kerkering said. “But I just kept grinding my way through until now.”

During a shortened 2020 season, Kerkering struggled. He only pitched 12 innings and had a 7.50 ERA, but things quickly took a turn for him going into his second year. 

“I knew because of COVID that our starting pitching was coming back, so I was going to have a similar role in the bullpen,” he said. “I just went with it, embraced it and then had a good year with it.”

Kerkering had a breakout season in 2021 as the team’s closer. He came on the mound as a different pitcher than he was before, putting in 50 innings and a 2.88 ERA in an unprecedented season for the program in which it won the AAC Tournament and reached its first NCAA Super Regional.

The team getting hot at the right time is what pushed Kerkering during the postseason run. 

“The momentum of just being able to go out there and just compete every single day because when you get in those important situations, it just helps you,” he said.

It wasn’t until before the 2022 season, however, that discussions began for Kerkering to become a starter. A season-ending injury to redshirt sophomore Jack Jasiak gave him the opportunity to take over as the team’s ace.

Assistant coach Karsten Whitson has seen first hand the work he’s put in behind the scenes to reach his current form. 

“He’s worked really hard to be that guy,” Whitson said. “That was one of his goals coming in the fall. Obviously, you love having a guy like that as your closer, but he wanted to challenge himself and try to carry 60-70 innings for us this year in a starter role and he’s transitioned well.”

For Kerkering, this was just another role that he had to take care of, taking a nonchalant approach to the larger load he had to take on.

“I’ve always worked up to being a starter but I was good with whatever if it was a really big role,” Kerkering said. “I knew I can fit that role no matter what and always be able to give more than one inning or give four innings out of the pen.” 

As the 2022 baseball season continues, Kerkering has risen to the occasion. The right hander has already put in 54.2 innings of work with 72 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.28 in 12 appearances, eight of which have been starts. 

The coaches and team aren’t the only ones that notice Kerkering’s strong outings either. He was recognized by ESPN and MLB pitching analyst Rob Friedman, better known as Pitching Ninja. 

Kerkering was praised for his skill on the mound in his start against Florida International on March 1, where he kept the Panthers scoreless in his first win of the season. The deadly pitch, his breaking ball as seen in the video. 

The pitcher was more than excited to be highlighted by someone who highlights some of the best pitchers best outings in all the high levels of baseball. 

Even with all of the acclaim he’s garnered because of his work on the mound since getting into his new role, Kerkering remains humble and remains committed to doing whatever the team needs.

“That was dope, I liked it a lot,” he said. “I always appreciate it because you are always flying under the radar. It’s always cool to see that, but at the end of day it’s just doing a job.”