Countdown to First Pitch: Justin Jones
Baseball has a funny way of sundering -- oh, so completely -- even the most well-laid of plans. Good hitting, as they say, is all about timing. Good pitching is about screwing up that timing. The game of baseball -- as a living, breathing entity -- is all about sending whatever time-keeping device you're using over the farthest outfield fence.
Baseball has its own plans -- its own internal clock. Players, writers, coaches, broadcasters -- we are all subject to its arbitrary hands, sometimes winding backwards to give us a glimpse -- if we are lucky, even a taste -- of the treasured past, and at others, speeding forward with such implacability that the sun itself seems a slave to its whims.
For California left-hander Justin Jones, baseball's sense of timing looks more like a Salvador Dali painting. After injury, a disappointing junior campaign, a precipitous fall in the draft and a month of intense internal debate, Jones made a firm decision this weekend: He will return to Berkeley for his senior season after being drafted in the 26th round by the Minnesota Twins.
A Freshman All-American -- the sixth in program history -- Jones won 10 games -- sixth in the Pac-10 and sixth on the program's all-time single-season list -- and fanned 73 hitters. As a sophomore, Jones helped lead Cal to the College World Series for the first time since 1992 with a 9-6 record, a 2.93 ERA and 81 strikeouts in a team-high 119.2 innings. Then, on June 11, in the midst of perhaps his best collegiate outing -- after he threw his eight warm-up pitches in the first game of the Santa Clara Super Regional against Dallas Baptist -- it all seemed to evaporate. Jones couldn't feel his left arm.
"I haven't felt that horrible in my life," says Jones. "I knew something was wrong. I knew something serious was wrong. I haven't really told anyone that. At the time, I thought I could come back and pitch in the World Series, but it lingered in the back of my mind: Something is really wrong."
Jones nearly sank into a deep depression until he found out just what was wrong with that golden wing. The diagnosis: A stretched nerve underneath his brachialis muscle, beneath the biceps, close to the bone. He didn't throw for more than six months.
"The fibers stretched out, which the nerves are kind of attached to," says Jones. "The nerve kind of expanded, and stretched to the point where it was going to take anywhere from a couple days to a long time to heal."
Jones's heart was in his stomach for three days, where he had no idea whether the golden appendage he'd put so much work into would ever throw again. He didn't know if he'd even get a chance to realize his dream of playing professional baseball.
But, over the next six months, he rested and recuperated and strengthened the arm. Throwing, for Jones, was like learning how to walk all over again. By the time spring practice came around, he seemed even stronger, topping out at 91 mph with his fastball. Yet, something was wrong.
When he returned for the 2012 season, something was amiss for the quixotic southpaw. His grip on the ball was unsure. His motion was off. Beneath his lengthy tresses, his brain was mush. No longer the stone-cold killer on the mound, he struggled. No roller coaster in the world could match the ups and downs of Jones's junior season. He went 4-9 with a 4.57 ERA in 80.2 innings, with performances as strong as a complete-game shutout of Washington State on May 6, and as baffling as a 2.2-inning, eight-hit, eight-run implosion against Texas on March 30. The sparkling shooting star that had shown so much promise just a year prior had buried himself in a crater seemingly miles deep.
"I would say it was psychological. I wasn't there at all in my head, this whole season. I thought I was, but my results don't really show that the physical ability was there," says Jones. "I had days and I had pitches, I had games where it was lights out, but the inconsistency killed me. I couldn't find the consistency, and I think that most of that lies in the mental side, but I think you could say that it came from the physical side as well. My strength and everything was back, but I say physical in that it was my natural throwing motion and stuff like that."
Jones seemed a sure bet to leave Cal after three years, like good friend and recruiting classmate Tony Renda. Instead, Jones -- who was picked in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox out of Oakdale (Calif.) High School -- fell all the way to the 26th round in the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
"I kind of expected it. I didn't really have any expectations going into the draft. I knew that something good could happen or something bad could happen. That's the situation I put myself in this year, with the injury and the poor season," says Jones. "As the rounds dropped and dropped, as my name wasn't called, I just wasn't paying attention anymore. I was just going to wait until I got a phone call."
It was hard not to liken Jones's situation to that of New York Mets farmhand Josh Satin. In 2007, the former Freshman All-American and fifth-year junior had expected to go in the top 10 rounds. After the end of the 50th, his name had yet to be called. Satin, too, underwent injury problems at Cal. A stress reaction in his wrist led him to post a woefully inadequate sophomore season, in which he hit just .222 in 47 games before being shut down in the waning weeks of the season. Satin went on to have a spectacular 2008 campaign, hitting .379, and made his Major League debut with the Mets last September.
"I think with the arm injury, I kind of lost my competitive edge," Jones says. "People can see it when they watch me. I'm pretty sure I wasn't fun to watch. I took pride in knowing that people would watch me and have a lot of fun, and that's what sparks me as a pitcher and made me really enthused to pith, was that people enjoyed watching me. That wasn't the case this past season. I know it was grueling, because it was grueling for me."
Jones seemed a sure bet to return to Berkeley. Even head coach David Esquer -- just days after the draft concluded -- was sure of it.
Second-round Washington Nationals draft pick Renda knew that his recruiting classmate and 2012 housemate would return. He said it with all the certainty in the world.
"He's going to get his work in. He's going to come back a lot better next year, I'm sure," Renda says. "It's going to be a good year."
But, while just about everyone in the Cal baseball family was positive he would return for his senior season, Jones was anything but.
"I was like a pinball machine for a while," says Jones. "I think it probably changed at least 50 times in the month that it took me to decide. As soon as it happened, I was like, ‘I'm going to go back to school.' Maybe a day or two later, I was like, ‘OK, I'm going to sign.' Then, that's why I came out to the Cape really, to play and to prove myself."
Jones trekked out to the Cape Cod League -- a summer wooden-bat circuit for the top collegiate prospects -- to try and find himself. What he found was even more darkness and uncertainty.
In his first game for the Bourne Braves, Jones lasted just two innings, giving up three runs on three hits and two walks with two strikeouts. His second outing was just as horrific, with three runs on four hits and one walk with one strikeout in two innings. In his third game, Jones surrendered three runs on four hits and one walk in just 0.2 innings.
"Imagine sitting in a cold, dark room, naked, in the fetal position, and that's how I felt," says Jones. "Completely, just as down as you can be. It wasn't cool to come out here, my first outing, and just completely just not meet my expectations in any way."
Several outings later, though, Jones showed some of his latent promise, allowing one hit and no runs in 1.1 innings with no walks and two strikeouts.
"The thing that I was really happy about is that I'm inconsistent, but consistent enough to grind through and compete, as opposed to in the season, where I was inconsistent and wasn't consistent at the right times," Jones said. "I went hit batter, double, and then two strikeouts and a groundout right back to me, so that was really gratifying, to know that I could still grind through some things and kind of squeeze my way out of trouble, even if I'm the one who got myself in trouble, which happened a lot this year, and I wasn't able to get out of it."
Jones is even working on developing some wrinkles in his repertoire, including a change in arm angle.
"I've been messing around, dropping low, going low sidearm," Jones says. "I doubt I'll do it, but it's pretty dirty if I have occasion to do it. It's really dirty, really dirty. I can control it, and my slider from down low is just filthy. I doubt I'll pull it out, but it's there."
And, slowly but surely, so is that confidence that made Jones one of the best pitchers in the Pac-12 in 2011. If all goes according to plan, Jones will hit the hill on Fridays in 2013 for the Bears, with improved depth behind him both in the rotation and the bullpen.
Saturday's starter looks to be Logan Scott, the big righty who spent last season in the bullpen. Since 2009 – he redshirted in 2010 -- Scott has started three games with a 4.00 ERA. At 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, he's got the frame to be a weekend starter, and according to both Scott and the staff, the plan is for him to be sandwiched between Jones and junior lefty Kyle Porter, who was limited by shoulder issues in 2012 and is expected to have a bounce-back season.
Those three starters will have a lot of arms behind them -- albeit inexperienced arms -- in redshirt freshmen Michael Jordan and Robb Woodcock, as well as talented sophomores Chris Muse-Fisher and Keaton Siomkin, who combined to go 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA in 65.2 innings in 2012.
A part-time starter last season, junior Michael Theofanopoulos will also press for innings, along with incoming freshman Ryan Mason, who, along with possessing a plus power sinker, can also manipulate his fastball from the mid-80s to the low-90s, depending on the situation. Pitching coach Mike Neu also brings in WCAL Pitcher of the Year Collin Monsour. Monsour went 4-0 in league play with just two earned runs in 35 innings in 2012 (0.40 ERA) and struck out 38. Monsour posted a 1.61 ERA in the postseason, including a win in relief in St. Ignatious's win over Aptos to take home the school's first ever Central Coast Section baseball title. Overall on the season, Monsour had a 9-2 record with a 1.01 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 70 innings.
"I can't wait," Jones said this summer. "I mean, I can wait, because I don't want school to start, but with school, comes baseball. I guess there's a positive in that."
And, on Jan. 22, spring practice officially kicked off.
As for what Cal fans can expect from Jones, well, it appears as though Renda was spot-on. The 2013 version of the playful lefty will be more intent than ever on dominating, and leaving not an ounce of doubt.
"That's what I'm trying to work on now: getting back to the competitive aspect of my game," he says, "to kind of just shove it down the hitter's throat, and know that I'm better than that person and putting on a show.
"I think I had about 50 different identities on the mound this year, and I got in my way. I just have to move forward from that. That, combined with the chip on my shoulder now of people doubting me, it's going to really push me forward and I'll slingshot my way into proving people wrong."
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