Jesse Barbera’s neatest trick isn’t shutting down loaded lineups with an average fastball.
It’s not excelling on the mound, in the field, and at the plate for the Eastern baseball team.
It’s not even starring in two sports in a Group 4 school that competes at the highest level of competition in baseball and basketball.
It’s doing all that while somehow being both the Vikings’ most laid-back athlete and an intensely focused competitor.
“Relaxed competitiveness,” Barbera calls it, making his approach sound simple.
It’s not. Eastern baseball coach Rob Christ and Vikings senior outfielder Jack Herman, one of South Jersey’s top all-around players, marvel at Barbera’s ability to be both steely-eyed and shoulder-shrugging at the same time.
“Nothing bothers him,” Herman said. “But if he’s in the zone, you can say something to him and he looks at you like he doesn’t even hear you. He’s in the zone.
“Then he comes in the dugout and if he gave up a home run, he’s laughing. He’s never upset by anything.”
Christ calls Barbera, the Vikings’ senior pitcher/infielder and leadoff hitter, a “stealth competitor” because of his easy-going approach.
“He’s laid-back but he’s fierce,” Christ said, acknowledging that such a combination can seem like a contradiction in terms.
Barbera figures he got his athletic temperament from his father, Kurt, who was a multisport star at Cherry Hill East in the late 1970s.
When Kurt Barbera was playing basketball at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University), his coach, Ralph Saquella, used to note that his standout swingman would be at home on a surfers’ beach in Southern California.
“I guess that’s where I get it from,” Jesse Barbera said. “I think if you get too worked up, you won’t have success. I try to relax, and just let the adrenaline take over.”
The 5-foot-10 Barbera is a top athlete. He was a three-year starter in basketball for Eastern, running the point for a team perennially ranked among South Jersey’s top squads and making the Carino Club all-star game as a senior.
Barbera burst on the baseball scene as a sophomore when he pitched a five-hitter in a 6-1 victory over then-No. 1 Gloucester Catholic in the title game of the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic.
“That was the game when you saw what he could do,” Herman said.
Barbera looked the same in Tuesday’s imposing, 10-1 win over Lenape in the Olympic American opener for both teams as he did that May night in 2016.
He pitched a complete game, allowing just five hits. He walked one. He struck out two.
He threw 94 pitches, 68 for strikes. His first eight pitches were strikes. He relied on his defense, and got good work from junior shortstop Jack Winsett, who handled six chances, and Herman, who tracked down a couple of well-struck balls.
“Just get ahead, throw strikes, trust my defense,” Barbera said. “I know I’m not going to overpower anybody with my fastball.”
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By his own admission, Barbera has an average fastball. He said he topped out at 84 mph on a radar gun last season.
“But that’s high for me, I’m usually in the low 80s,” Barbera said. “In high school, it’s not the speed. It’s throwing strikes, getting ahead, keeping the hitters off balance.”
On the mound, Barbera is 2-0 this season with a 1.07 ERA. He has walked three in 13 innings.
At the plate, Barbera is batting .348 with two doubles, four RBIs and four runs for the 5-1 Vikings, who have risen to No. 3 in the rankings.
“I like the way we’re playing,” Barbera said after Eastern’s fifth straight victory. “We were a little shaky in the preseason. But we smoothed it out.”
While most seniors have made a college decision, Barbera still hasn’t made up his mind. He’s not stressing about it, either.
He probably could play baseball or basketball at the NCAA Division 3 level, if he decides to go that route. He said he also was considering going to a larger school, playing club sports and working on his guitar skills.
“I’ll probably decide May first, something like that,” Barbera said. “I’m not too worried about it.”