The Elon University baseball team’s Saturday afternoon game against Longwood University was still in progress, the unspeakable performance of redshirt junior pitcher Robbie Welhaf nearing completion.
And yet, even though there was no guarantee Welhaf would be able to finish off Elon’s first no-hitter since joining Division I, head coach Mike Kennedy was almost overcome with emotions.
“[Assistant coach] Robbie [Huffstetler] and I are sitting here and I’m trying to make sure I don’t bust out in tears because you’re happy for a guy that sticks with it,” Kennedy said. “The kid’s been through a lot — Tommy John, he’s had rough outings here that have brought him down. For him to come back, work and put his time in? So excited for him.”
But with his 100th pitch of the afternoon, in just his third collegiate start, Welhaf got a called strike three for his career-high eighth strikeout in a game and, as he put it, the final touch on the best game he’s ever pitched.
“My college career has definitely been shaky — there’s definitely been some ups and some downs,” Welhaf said. “Can’t really say there’s been a really, really good outing before. This definitely tops anything I’ve done before, and to do it at this level with these guys is just awesome.”
Welhaf said it was still “a little surreal” a day later, which makes sense for a pitcher who had thrown just 32.2 innings in college. With it being the second game of the season, Kennedy originally hadn’t planned on throwing Welhaf more than 90 pitches, but the effective pitching made a potentially challenging decision easy.
“He was still throwing well, he didn’t look gassed at all. He had a lot of quick innings — he didn’t have to stay out there long,” Kennedy said. “Obviously it’s a no-hitter, but there’s a lot of things that went in his favor to say, ‘We’re at 90 anyway, let’s try to let him finish it.’ That part was easy, to be quite honest with you.”
There were a few scares — none more alarming than in the eighth when Welhaf’s run of 16-straight batters retired ended with a one-out hit-by-pitch. But on the very next pitch, Welhaf induced a grounder right to sophomore shortstop Ryne Ogren, who took one step to second base and fired to first for an inning-ending double play.
Throughout the game, Elon’s defense stepped up and made some key plays, with Ogren going deep into the hole at short for a play early and sophomore outfielder Liam O’Regan making a sliding catch in right. Welhaf was extremely complimentary of his defense, saying, “they made some incredible plays that, now looking back at it, saved a no-hitter.”
Redshirt freshman infielder Cam Devanney, who made a couple of key snags at third base, felt that the defense was in-step with Welhaf’s presence on the mound.
“You looked at him at any point in the game and you knew he had the utmost confidence,” Devanney said. “He was so confident on the mound, even when down in the count and in situations with a man on first, he knew he was going to get the job done. We fed off of that.”
And Welhaf fed off of junior catcher Hayden Platt, himself making his first start at Elon after transferring in from the junior college level. Welhaf said the two found “a connection that’s hard to explain” from the first day they threw together, but Platt found the words to describe it.
“Personally, one of the big things as a catcher is you want to be on that page with your pitcher,” Platt said. “From the start of the fall, me and Rob have just been in that secret, magnificent pitcher-catcher relationship that we always talk about. It couldn’t have happened to anybody better, and I’m so happy for him.”
Kennedy noticed it too, especially in the way Welhaf trusted what his catcher was calling. For the 21-year leader of the Phoenix, Kennedy said the way Welhaf used his pitches — and, specifically, didn’t use one — was remarkable.
“I think the best thing about it was he pitched like you want to call a game,” Kennedy said. “He used what he needed to early, and then he had something in the tank that they hadn’t seen in that changeup. In the sixth inning, he started throwing that changeup and it was lights out. If you don’t have to use it and show it early, then don’t do it. Now you have something to go to, and boy, that was awesome.”
Kennedy, the coaching staff and the entire team were quick to hold to baseball’s superstitions as the innings went along, leaving Welhaf all to himself in the back corner of the dugout. For the Doylestown, Pennsylvania, native, it was impossible to not know what was going on.
“You try not to think about it, but it’s always in the back of your head,” Welhaf said. “But with our defense and how things were going, you just keep on doing what you’re doing. You can’t really expect that to happen, so you just keep on going. Lucky for me, it just happened.”
And, with his history of battling injuries, it only became all the more fitting that his parents and grandparents could be in attendance for Saturday’s masterpiece, one that they all will never forget.
“For a while, it definitely didn’t seem real,” Welhaf said. “At the end of the night, being with my family and friends and celebrating with everyone — it just made the day that much better.
“They’ve been right by my side through the ups and downs, and I’m just happy they’re here for the ups.”
Editor's note: The original version of this story online and in print misidentified Robbie Welhaf's hometown. It is Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Elon News Network regrets the error.