By: Nick Galle
Each year, millions of kids across the country participate in Little League with dreams of someday suiting up for their favorite team to play in front of thousands of fans. Whether it be hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth during the College World Series or throwing a no-hitter against a notorious rival at Fenway Park, every ballplayer has a vision of what they want to accomplish by the time they hang up the cleats once and for all.
But at each level, the player pool shrinks. For many, the dreams fade and the visions of stardom fall to the wayside. Relationships made on the field become distant memories, and in the blink of an eye, baseball turns into a spectator sport and no longer serves as the unifier it once was.
But for Zach Agnos and his brother Jake, baseball is still a cornerstone of their relationship long after the days of having big-league aspirations as kids.
Zach is currently coming off of his first full season at East Carolina University. Jake was at ECU from 2017 to 2019 before getting drafted by the New York Yankees in the fourth round of the 2019 MLB First-Year Player Draft. But before all of their success, their careers had humble beginnings that included playing Wiffle ball in the front yard.
“We used to fight all the time because we were so competitive. It was the best times of my life,” Zach said. “We’d just get up on the mound, throw as hard as we can, try to blow it by each other (and) have some fun out there in the cul-de-sac and then it turned into me and him doing some WWE moves on each other.”
The two would go on to play Little League together and eventually play on the same high school team, which is one of Zach’s favorite memories. Zach said Jake took him under his wing and was the most dominant high school pitcher he had ever seen, and the stats back up that claim.
Jake went 7-0 with a 0.65 ERA during his junior campaign while striking out 129 hitters in 64 1/3 innings. He also threw a no-hitter and recorded double-digit strikeouts six times, with one of those outings being a 21-strikeout performance against Osbourn Park High School.
Believe it or not, he followed it up with an even better senior season. As team captain, Jake went 11-0 with a 0.54 ERA and struck out 136 batters in just 65 innings. He allowed just five earned runs and 14 hits.
In addition to looking out for him on the field, Jake has also been there for Zach throughout everyday life.
“I’m the younger brother, so he always looks out for me. In the weight room he would always be pushing me because I was tiny as a freshman, and he’s like, ‘Dude you can’t hang with everybody if you’re gonna be that small,’ so he pushed me in there and he gave me tough love,” Zach said. “He’s always looking out for my best interest. It taught me that he wouldn’t get mad at me for no reason.”
That tough love was on full display in a high school game during Zach’s freshman year.
After a pretty rough performance at the plate, Zach was pinch hit for late in the game. He came in the dugout and was upset, and began to tear up a bit. Zach then looked up and watched as Jake stomped toward him from the other end of the dugout with stern shoulders and a serious look on his face. Jake grabbed him, pulled him close and told him that he didn’t need to be dealing with that type of behavior since he was trying to focus on the game.
“He said some other words and that’s when it really clicked for me that he was just like, ‘Man this isn’t about you, this is about the team and you know you got to be a team guy,'” Zach said. “That kind of showed me, like I said, the tough love (and) that he cares about me.”
Zach also said Jake knows how to handle adversity better than anyone. He has been no stranger to it, especially recently, as the left-hander is coming off Tommy John surgery.
“He puts a chip on his shoulder everytime something bad happens,” Zach said. “Just the way he goes about his business too is just fun to watch.”
Head baseball coach Cliff Godwin, who has coached Zach and Jake at ECU, said that when it comes to handling adversity so well, Jake developed a lot of the skills to do so during his time with the Pirates.
“We did not have the season that we wanted and Jake was thrown into the fire, pitched well sometimes, sometimes he didn’t,” Godwin said. “I think he learned how to be very consistent no matter what was happening around him after being here for three years.”
Those lessons were then passed on to Zach, and they were put to the test this past year as COVID-19 swept across the nation. But during the pandemic, Zach had Jake, Jake had Zach and both had baseball to fall back on.
“We didn’t really see much of each other cause I was at school, and he’s pro ball and when COVID happened we came back and we got a key to the gym by our place and we both worked out together,” Zach said. “Hitting and pitching is so similar, just with lower-half mechanics especially, just trying to get every use out of your body you can and so, like I said, it helped tremendously because we got to spend every day together.”
Godwin said despite the unusual circumstances, Zach didn’t let the pandemic stifle his development as a player. Instead, he took advantage of the situation.
“Zach handled it unbelievably. He very much improved his game over the COVID time,” Godwin said. “He worked out every day, was hitting, throwing, doing everything he could (and) doing sprints to make himself as good as he could be working individually.”
In addition to their ability to power through any obstacles that might stand in their way, Godwin said the Agnos brothers are also similar when it comes to their personalities as a whole.
“They have a ton of energy,” Godwin said. “They smile a lot, they have a ton of energy, they’re very well-spoken, people like them, they got great personalities, those are the similarities that they have.”
Along with their similar personalities, both Zach and Jake have worn the number 14 during their time at ECU. Their uncle played baseball at Virginia Tech, so whenever it came time to select a jersey, 14 became the go-to.
“It kind of got confusing my freshman year and he got to be 14 so I had to pick two,” Zach said. “It’s a family number, we love it and hopefully we can keep the tradition going.”
When it came to his college decision, Zach had an extensive recruiting process that lasted nearly a year. Since Jake was already at ECU, Zach was drawn to the school because Godwin had told Jake how he was going to use him as a player, and had lived up to his word. Trust started to build between the two before Zach had even committed, and Jake mentioned that Godwin not only taught his players about baseball, but also about life.
“Coach Godwin always likes to say bad things happen to great people all the time,” Zach said. “We’ve had team meetings and it’s just been about bad grades. I remember a story about his old coach, he used to get on him because he got a C in a class, and he’s like, ‘You’re not a C student,’ and so he just kind of takes that along with him.”
Godwin said that Jake also prepared Zach for college so that he knew what to expect by the time he got to ECU.
“I definitely think Jake has prepared Zach … from the aspect of letting Zach know what he was going to get himself into, just workouts, to baseball practice, to games,” Godwin said. “I think that’s been a very positive resource for Zach to have early success in our program. The guy has pretty much started at third base from day one dating back to the COVID year. I mean he was our starting third baseman and then of course he played third base for us every single game this year, so I definitely think that part helped out.”
On the field and off, Jake was there for Zach and has helped him build the arsenal of skills that he possesses today. It’s an arsenal that’s allowed him to successfully play college baseball at the Division I level, and one that secured him a roster spot in the most competitive collegiate summer league in the country.
And it all stemmed from somewhat vicious Wiffle ball games in the front yard.
“Zach is fun to be around,” Godwin said. “A lot of times even if he’s got something bad going on in his life, he’s still got a smile on his face. He makes me happy when I see him, because 99% of the time he’s got a smile on his face. So I would say he’s an energy-giver if you had to sum it up, and those guys, I love being around those guys.”
Cover photo via: Joe Sullivan