The Arizona Diamondbacks are no strangers to Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. In 2005, they drafted pitcher Kyle Wright from there in the 19th round, and Wright pitched four solid seasons in the organization before exploring other pursuits. Last year, they selected LCSC third baseman Kyle Greene in the 11th round. Greene had an excellent pro debut in Montana and has led the Rawhide in RBI all year long.
While Ed Gustafson was scouting Greene last spring, he noticed that one of his teammates fit the makeup of an Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher. That was closer Justin Mace, a big sinker/slider pitcher who attacks the strike zone. The only other organization that had their eye on Mace was the Cleveland Indians, and the 6-foot-4 hurler slipped through all 50 rounds of that 2008 draft.
The Diamondbacks had liked what they had seen from Mace enough to offer him a contract almost immediately after the draft, and he signed the deal days later. He managed an impressive 49 strikeouts to just 16 walks in his rookie season, but only has a 1-4 record, 4.22 ERA, and a lone save to show for his efforts.
"Personally, I feel like I have to work harder," Mace admitted when asked if his undrafted status affected his mindset. "I've always worked hard my whole life, and I'm not going to stop now. It really doesn't matter whether I got drafted or not. I'm just going to keep working hard and try to make that club."
That hard work has certainly paid off this year, as Mace has separated himself from a talented group of Silver Hawks relievers. South Bend Manager Mark Haley maintains that there is never a set closer on the Silver Hawks so that prospects can get used to a variety of roles. Still, T.J. Hose collected eight of the 10 Silver Hawk saves between May 26 and July 20, when Hose earned a promotion to Visalia. Justin Mace has been responsible for three of the club's six saves since that time, and has earned either a save or a victory in five of his last six appearances.
"I've been relieving my whole life, pretty much," Mace told FutureBacks earlier in the season. "In college, I was our closer, and that's [the role] I'm trying to get here."
"The season's going great. I've been getting opportunities, the team's been winning, and I'm getting those innings I need."
Now that Mace has seized that coveted "closer's" role, he is running with it. He hasn't allowed a run in his last nine appearances, spanning 11 innings. He has fanned 17 batters over his last 13 innings and walked just two over his last 20. He owns a 2.08 ERA for the season, having saved seven games in eight opportunities. 35 strikeouts to just eight walks show that Mace's success is no fluke.
The success hasn't gone to his head, however. He is one of the loosest, most easy-going guys in the clubhouse and has remained humble. Even though four different backstops have caught him this year - Chris Davis, Ryan Babineau, Rossmel Perez, and Tyson Van Winkle - he hasn't had any problems working with them.
"I don't shake the catcher off ever," Mace began. "I trust out catchers. Our catchers call a great game. If I don't like it, I'll call it off every once in a while, but I pretty much trust them."
Because Mace doesn't have typical closer's stuff - a two-seam fastball that rarely reached 90 miles per hour, a solid slider, and a developing changeup - what he and his catcher agree upon as far as pitch-calling is far more important than for someone throwing a mid-90s heater, for which a catcher basically throws one finger down repeatedly at the low minor league levels.
"I like mixing pitches because I can control the zone," explained Mace. "I work on movement more than velocity - hitting my spots."
He has definitely hit his spots so far this season. As far as movement goes, Mace's next move could be to follow in the footsteps of T.J. Hose to Advanced A-ball.
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