Simo Saturday has become a tradition during the 2021 Virginia Tech baseball season. Fans gather in English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park to be treated to the show that Anthony Simonelli exhibits every weekend.
It’s not just the filthy stuff emanating from the right arm of Simonelli in the form of some mid-90’s fastballs, wipeout knuckle curves, piercing cutters, and diving change ups. It’s the emotion and energy he brings to the mound that fires everyone up. When Simonelli retires the side, he’ll walk back to the dugout pounding his chest, flaring his arms in the air to pump up the crowd, and yelling that it’s his house all in a display of authentic passion that is largely missing from the game today.
“My biggest thing is [pitching coach Ryan] Fecteau and [head coach John] Szefc allow me to be who I am,” Simonelli said. “You see on the mound. I pitch with energy and passion.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound hurler is having fun again. It hasn’t always been that way.
Rising Through The High School Ranks
Mike Simonelli, Anthony’s father, still remembers watching his son pitch at a Virginia Wesleyan College camp in November before his freshman season began. One of Mike’s buddies was running the event and invited him to sit by the group of college coaches in attendance.
Simonelli threw several pitches and a vast majority of the coaches put an X through his name and stopped taking notes. Mike was shocked. He thought Anthony had the talent to attend a Division III college. Once Simonelli’s outing was over, Mike chatted up one of the coaches and asked why his son was marked off, looking to get some feedback so he could begin working with Anthony to refine that part of his game. Instead, he got an answer that nearly caused his eyes to pop out of his head.
“He said, ‘I coach D-III. I’m never going to see him. He’ll be a D-I pitcher.’ Right then, I was like ‘Oh my God,’” Mike said.
That’s when it all sunk in for Mike that his son was a special force on the bump. During Simonelli’s freshman year at Millbrook High School in Winchester, Virginia, he pitched against a loaded 22-1 Amherst County squad on the road. 21 outs later, Simonelli had fired a complete game and quieted the crowd. Hours later, he received his first Division I offer from Liberty University. This was only the beginning.
Simonelli missed his sophomore year with knee surgery, but returned for his junior season and posted an 8-1 record with a 0.57 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 49.0 innings pitched. His summer before his senior season would be spent traveling to different showcase events across the country. That was the plan at least until it all came crashing down at the East Coast Pro showcase.
“I was throwing in the bullpen. It was actually at UVA,” Simonelli said. “I felt a pop. I threw like five or six more. Everything felt fine. Went into the dugout and relaxed for 10 minutes. I came back out on the mound and threw like 75 miles per hour. I was like, ‘Wow, it’s gone.’ I knew right there I tore my UCL.”
Just like that his senior season vanished in an instant. Simonelli underwent Tommy John surgery the next month and started the recovery process, one that only intensified the fierce competitiveness he’s shown from a young age.
“The first four months I basically begged to do more things,” Simonelli said. “Obviously my arm restricted me from doing that. Luckily I had a good group around me at the time. They allowed me to do as much as I could. My competitive nature helped me out through the whole process.
“It took about 14 months for me to be completely normal again as in my old self. From month one to month 14, it was a grind every day.”
College Career Before Virginia Tech
Despite missing his senior season, Simonelli’s chops on the mound couldn’t be denied. He signed with Coastal Carolina. Simonelli eased his way back into playing shape, and by October he was 100 percent. Even as a true freshman, he was quickly slotted as the Chanticleers mid-week starter.
It was a strong start to the season for the Winchester native before a bad outing against Connecticut derailed all progress. Simonelli admitted that he and pitching coach Drew Thomas “didn’t see eye to eye” the rest of the season. He only threw eight more innings over the final three months.
Still, Simonelli expected to return the next season and solidify a role in the rotation. His exit meeting with the coaching staff confirmed it. Except there were some underlying circumstances that quickly altered those plans.
“The draft came around. They thought they were going to lose two kids to the draft with the upcoming recruiting class,” Simonelli said. “They called me up and said ‘Hey, you’re getting cut. We’re taking all your money away. We don’t think it’s a good fit here for you.’ That was basically it. I decided I needed to figure out somewhere to go, so I went the JUCO route.”
Simonelli abruptly landed at St. John’s River State College in Florida. In two of his first three starts, he tossed no-hitters, including one of them being a perfect game. His edge and competitiveness on the mound returned, as well, after it was stifled over his time at Coastal.
“Coach Szefc and Fecteau told him when they were recruiting him, ‘Look, we want you to bring that mentality, that fieriness, that fierce competitiveness that you have when you were down at JUCO.’ They wanted that because they thought that Tech was just a little too soft sometimes,” Mike said. “They weren’t animated and weren’t energized and they wanted him to do that.”
The St. John’s River to Virginia Tech connection had already been established in recent years with Nick Owens, Kerry Carpenter, and Jaison Heard building the pipeline. It only made sense that Simonelli followed right in place.
“We don’t want to cookie cut guys or force them to be something that they’re not,” Fecteau said. “We want them to be individuals. That’s the special thing with Anthony is just how well he competes and how much he cares and the emotion that he has out there. I think if you take that away from the kid, then you’re really limiting him. We encourage it.”
Simo Saturday’s At Virginia Tech
Simonelli arrived in Blacksburg for the 2020 season and quickly earned a spot in the rotation alongside Ian Seymour and Chris Gerard. He was solid in the shortened season, holding a 2-1 record with a 2.95 ERA and 26 strikeouts over 21.1 innings pitched. He added a cutter to his arsenal that first season and began hitting the weight room to gear up for the 2021 season.
This year, Simonelli has officially arrived. While his ERA is up to 3.86, largely because of one bad outing against NC State, virtually every other category is improved. He’s 5-1 with 68 strikeouts over 60.2 inning pitched. Opponents are hitting just .176 against him, and he’s cut down on his walks, going from 5.48 BB/9 last year to 3.86 BB/9 this year.
“He’s in a good place with repeating his delivery a lot more consistently,” Fecteau said. “I think he’s been pitching more and more with the fastball this year. Last year he relied a little too much on some off-speed stuff. He’s pitched in, out, up with the fastball. He’s had both breaking balls with the cutter and the curveball this year. He’s had times where he utilized the change up really well. He’s just been able to do a lot of different things.”
The hard-throwing right-hander has elevated his game to another level recently. Over the last three games, he’s accounted for 21.2 innings pitched, surrendering just nine hits, four earned runs for a 1.59 ERA with 25 strikeouts. Simonelli has thrown for 7.0 innings or more in all three games, something he had never done in a single game before these last three, and he fanned a career-high 10 batters this past Saturday against Duke.
“I think it’s just attacking hitters,” Simonelli said. “When I first got here it was, I wanted to strike out everybody. Over the year, I’ve learned I can strike out people while attacking people instead of getting too pretty on an 0-2 pitch.
“That’s what I’ve learned. It keeps my pitch count down. I used to try to throw too good of a pitch too early. Now, I just throw good pitches early, and better stuff later on. I think that’s what has helped me out.”
With more success on the mound, there’s certainly been more emotions displayed between innings by Simonelli on the way back to the dugout. It’s all a harbinger that he’s having fun once again.
“My first coach [at Coastal] didn’t really like that. He liked people who were laid back,” Simonelli said. “That just wasn’t me. I have to be showing people up in a good way sometimes or pitching with aggressiveness. I pitch my best when my teammates get involved too. … Szefc at the beginning of the year was kind of like ‘simmer down a little bit,’ but now I think he likes it even more.”
“The bottom line to everything is he’s having fun,” Mike added. “He had that taken away from him at Coastal. They didn’t believe in him. Anthony has finally been able to have fun again. They believe in him. They call it Simo Saturday.
“Pitchers can’t really do anything, so for Anthony, he takes it personally. Like, ‘Hey, I”m going to get you out and that’s my job.’ If it’s the third out of an inning, he takes that and explodes with it because he wants to get the fans and team riled up to get more runs. If everybody is down, it’s hard to get a hit. When everybody is pumped up, the momentum and the mojo is there. Everything he does is spontaneous and natural. Nothing is staged. Nothing is rehearsed.”
So where does the impassioned screaming, the deep competitiveness, and the ultimate confidence originate from for Simonelli? It doesn’t take one guess to know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“I gotta say my dad,” Simonelli said with a chuckle. “If you go to a Virginia Tech game, you can hear him everywhere. He walks around. He looks like me with a mustache, yelling everywhere. I definitely get it from him.”
“I’m an Italian. If you see me at the games, I pace all over the place. I’m very loud. You’ll hear my whistles,” Mike said. “Being a smaller guy growing up, you always had to have an edge. My edge was my tenacity, my aggressiveness, and my IQ in whatever sport I played, always trying to take advantage of someone who didn’t think I could do things.”
That same mindset is molded in Anthony. Growing up playing basketball, he would guard the team’s tallest player and have to battle down low. He’ll use any little slight against him and remember it to prove the critics wrong. It’s a humble and under-the-radar mindset. Simonelli is naturally a quiet young man, but he’ll explode with emotions in an instant when he performs up to his capability.
“He is a very quiet kid,” Mike said. “He’s like Clark Kent and Superman. Once he gets off the field, he’s just an average kid that you wouldn’t know plays baseball. Once he gets out there, he puts the cape on and it becomes Simo Saturday there.
“He believes in himself, and he always wants to prove people wrong. It’s not in a vindictive way. It’s a ‘Because I’m quiet a lot of times, you don’t think I can, but I’m quiet because I don’t need to be loud.’ He just respects the game. He respects people. He basically goes out there and does his job. He’s very humble. For me, I can’t be more proud of him.”
The competitive drive from Simonelli over the last 15 years has led to this point. When others on his basketball team were resting between games, he was in the parking lot with his father throwing a bullpen session. Instead of family vacations, Mike would drive Anthony to Atlanta just so he could pitch two innings and register his velocity with Perfect Game. It’s been an arduous journey, one filled with ups and downs, but Simonelli’s steadfastness has remained in place.
“I just do it because I love the game,” Simonelli said. “I’ve enjoyed playing baseball since I was five years old. I’ve enjoyed my dad driving me around everywhere. I’ve enjoyed every summer just playing baseball and nothing else. I’ve never been a normal kid.
“My dad and I looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do in life, so I want to focus on that.’ We pushed aside some other things. I’m very grateful for what my parents have done for me. I do it because of them. They like to see me happy, and that’s what baseball does. It makes me happy.”
And still, it’s a journey that hasn’t reached its pinnacle yet.
“His sign above his bedroom says ‘It’s all about baseball.’ He’s had that there since he’s been six years old. He wants to be a professional baseball player. That is his complete drive in life,” Mike said. “I’m just really proud that he’s overcome all the hurdles in his life to continue chasing his dream. July 11, 12, and 13 is the draft. Hopefully one of those days he hears his name. I’ll cry like a little kid.”