Bryce Budzinski was wound so tightly the only time his body came to rest was when he peered over his glove to get the sign from catcher Sam Zeleznik. The Highland right-hander lost his hat after nearly every pitch — most of the time it simply fell off — slicked back his hair and reset mentally.
Budzinski never showed up an opponent but wasn’t afraid to express body language after a bad pitch or pump a fist after a clutch strikeout. Even in postgame interviews, the senior swayed side to side.
Fidgety, intense and super competitive, Budzinski was a two-way monster as the Hornets won 12-of-13 games to reach the Division I state semifinals for the first time, making him more than worthy of Gazette MVP.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” coach Jay Grissom said. “He expects the most out of himself on every pitch. He did a pretty good job of channeling that. Once he got the sign and rocked into his motion, he was OK, but between pitches he was pretty amped up all the time.
“I don’t know I’ve ever coached anybody who expects more out of themselves than he does. Every time he went out, one hit was too many. He competed and competed and, as jazzed up as he looked on the mound, in big games I don’t think we had anyone who was calmer in the right moments.”
Highland was stuck in mediocrity with a 7-8 record through April. Budzinski had statistics worthy of All-Gazette status, but the 6-foot, 195-pounder found another level of performance due in part to a mid-to-upper 80s fastball and nasty, late-breaking power curveball. He also had the ability to recall what pitch he threw to get batters out, which proved valuable as games wore on.
Over the final 14 games, the pitcher/first baseman/third baseman batted .447 with nine RBIs, 13 runs, five walks and zero strikeouts. He did not whiff over his final 50 plate appearances.
Subtract a state semifinal loss to eventual champion Olentangy Liberty and Budzinski was 4-0 with a 0.56 ERA and 32 strikeouts over 25 innings during that span. He three-hit Barberton in a must-win Suburban League American Conference game and went on a tear in the postseason, tossing six innings against SL National Conference champion Wadsworth and complete games against former D-II power Archbishop Hoban and defending regional finalist Mentor.
“He had a big league curveball,” Wadsworth coach Greg Pickard said. “Hs curveball was great, and he could control it. Over the years, it went from a nice looper to a sharp breaker.
“I was really impressed with his command of his curveball, and I’m very impressed with the way he battled, especially against us. He threw his curveball a lot and had his pitch count up there, but he dominated us, for sure.”
Budzinski finished the year 5-2 with a 3.13 ERA and 53 strikeouts in a Medina County-leading 44⅔ innings, with the only losses to D-II regional qualifier Revere and D-I state champion Olentangy Liberty. He was 11-8 with a 2.15 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 109⅔ career innings.
At the plate this season, Budzinski batted .378 with eight doubles, two triples, 16 RBIs and 21 runs and was among county leaders in almost every power category.
“I made sure I wasn’t just hitting in games and at practice, because I don’t feel like that’s enough reps,” he said. “I felt pretty hot throughout the second half of the season hitting, and I made sure I got my reps in.
“Pitching, the first (Revere) game, it was kind of a fluke. It was an off day (8 runs in 3 innings). I just told myself right after that game I’m not going to let that happen again. I just can’t.
“On the mound, I like blowing it by guys. That’s probably why I’m intense, because I really want to whip a fastball. I know I wasn’t throwing as hard in the last game I pitched (low-80s), but I had thrown a lot. In two months, that’s pretty taxing on your arm. How I train is why I’m so intense. It’s fun to see a high number up there for velo (velocity).”
Budzinski and the Hornets were experienced, so they knew they had the ability to make a tournament run. With great pitching, defense and situational hitting, they became the first county team to advance to state since 1991 Black River.
Playing in the same infield as best friends Gavin Noble (shortstop), Jackson Miller (third base) and Billy Keller (second base) made the month of May — and even June — even sweeter for Budzinski, who will head to Lake Erie College in the fall.
“It means a lot,” Budzinski said. “We’re in the gym, we’re up at IVL (in Wadsworth), we’re making sure we succeed. I’m working, they’re working, and if they’re not working, I’m telling them to work.
“We’re so close, we make each other good. It’s cool that we got to go this far together being best friends.”
- Highland falls to Olentangy Liberty in state semifinal
- Highland confindent heading into today's state semifinal matchup
- Highland's dream lives on with regional semifinal win over Mentor
- Commentary: Talented Highland team peaking at the right time
- Highland win over Archbishop Hoban shows dividends still paying off from 2016 regional trip
- Budzinski leads Highland over Wadsworth