Kenny Roder and Abe Groomes have been the best of friends since they were 8 years old.
“We were on the same minor league team in Little League together,” Roder recalled. “It was Imposto’s Pizza. We’ve been good friends ever since. We hang out together all the time.”
“It’s good to know that I always have someone like Kenny who has my back and will always help me,” Groomes said. “He knows that I’m always there for him if he needs me and needs my help. We’re always there for each other.”
The two also do their best to keep each other loose with practical jokes and gags.
“I have to separate them on the bus on the way home from games,” veteran Hoboken baseball coach Buddy Matthews said. “Sometimes, they get too silly.”
“He does everything wacky,” Roder said of Groomes.
“He’s crazy all the time,” Groomes said of his buddy. “He’s always dancing. He does this thing called the ‘Sexy Walk.’ We challenge each other all the time to it. He can get a little lower than me, so I guess he does it better.”
However, the two also form the most formidable 1-2 punch of left-handed pitchers Hoboken has ever produced and it’s clearly one of the best lefty-lefty combinations in recent memory throughout the whole county.
Most high school teams are extremely fortunate to have one left-handed pitcher. The Red Wings have the luxury of having two standouts from the portside.
“Having two lefties can virtually shut down the opponents’ running game,” Matthews said. “It makes teams more leery to run, because both have very good pickoff moves. But having two lefties who know how to pitch and are successful is very rare. It’s invaluable, because quality lefties can bring so much more to a baseball team. We’ve played teams that haven’t seen that many lefties, so it makes these two young men even more valuable. In 26 years of coaching, I’ve never had two like these two.”
The Red Wings have enjoyed a climb back into local baseball prominence this season. After winning just nine games last year, they’ve already won nine times this year and rank as one of the teams with a legitimate shot of winning the Hudson County Tournament championship in a few weeks.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Red Wings’ improvement has been the maturation of juniors Roder and Groomes.
“They both basically have matured into fine pitchers,” Matthews said. “Nothing rattles them anymore. We’ve won nine games and they have won seven of them. They don’t let anything get to them and have taken on the responsibility of being the tip pitchers on the staff.”
Roder and Groomes have both come up big this season.
Groomes has gotten a handle on his mechanics and has become more of a refined pitcher instead of just being a hard thrower, like he was while gaining a huge reputation in Little League and youth baseball.
Roder has impeccable control, having walked just four batters all season in 40 innings of work.
Groomes has a 3-2 mark with a 2.56 earned run average. Roder owns an even more impressive 4-1 mark (with his lone loss coming in a 1-0 setback to Memorial) and a stingy 0.74 earned run average, with 63 strikeouts in 40 innings. Roder’s four wins have come against county powers Bayonne, Hudson Catholic, Kearny and a two-hit shutout of Union City last week.
For their efforts, the two friends have been selected as the Hudson Reporter Co-Athletes of the Week for the past week.
Matthews is flabbergasted at Roder’s pinpoint control.
“It’s uncanny how Kenny can put the ball to spots,” Matthews said. “I’ve never had a pitcher with that kind of control. That’s the reason why he’s done so well.”
Roder exploded onto the scene last year, when as a sophomore, he threw a perfect game against University High of Newark in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs. One start prior to the perfect game, Roder fired a four-hit shutout against Marist, striking out 12. This all came after Roder lost his first five varsity decisions.
“My father [Alan Roder] worked with me a lot in the off-season,” Roder said. “He used to catch me all the time, until he couldn’t anymore. I worked on my control, hitting spots. I really get mad when I walk one batter. I never want to walk anyone.”
It’s proven by Roder’s control this season.
“It’s ridiculous,” Groomes said of his buddy’s ability to throw strikes. “He has fantastic accuracy.”
“It’s all mechanics and focus,” Roder said. “I couldn’t wait for this season. I don’t think I had a good season last year, but towards the end of the year, I got it and wanted to keep it.”
Groomes has also improved dramatically this season, going from a wild fireball thrower to refined pitcher.
“Abe had to make some adjustments in the way he pitched,” Matthews said. “He worked on his mechanics and he’s begun to feel comfortable. Once he gets that down, he can go back to dominate the way he did in Little League.”
“I think pitching this year has helped to build my confidence,” Groomes said. “I worked on my mechanics a lot and worked on my off-speed pitches. I realize that I can’t just overpower people anymore. I have a curveball now and a slider. I’ve become more effective mixing speeds. I feel like I’m better as a pitcher.”
The friends are also excellent defensive outfielders when they’re not occupying the hill.
“We help each other out a lot,” Groomes said. “I rely on him a lot. He’s a cool friend.”
“It really helps that we’re together,” Roder said. “We are always trying to help each other.”
Last week, the buddies were working on a pickoff move while out having lunch.
Although they are only juniors, it’s not too early to start thinking about college plans. Who knows? Maybe they’ll do the “Sexy Walk” together at a college campus in the fall, although in Roder’s case, walk is simply not in his vocabulary.
“I’m always thinking about college,” Roder said.
“I think about college and whether I will play basketball or baseball in college,” said Groomes, a standout guard in basketball. “Maybe I can go somewhere where I can play both.”
In the meantime, the buddies have made Hoboken baseball a legit threat once again.
“I think it gives our team confidence, knowing that we have me or Abe to get the job done,” Roder said. “I think it helps Abe’s confidence as well. We’re capable of doing some great things.”
“We both know what we can do,” Groomes said. “It’s a great feeling.”
It’s certainly made Matthews feel good again.
“Having two kids like this just revitalizes you,” Matthews said. “It gives you the extra energy you need to get by. Losing wears on you. Winning is exciting.”
And Hoboken has become a winning baseball program once again, thanks to the efforts of two talented left-handers who happen to be best of friends.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Roder said. “I like being with Abe and I’m glad he’s doing well with me.”
So is every other baseball fan in the Mile Square City. – Jim Hague Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.