It was late afternoon this past June 5, the third day of the Major League Baseball draft, and Blake Newsome, Mid-Atlantic area scout for the Miami Marlins, was on the line informing the 2017 Collegiate graduate that his organization had selected him in the 39th round.
“It was a huge honor,” said Justice, a 6-5, 205-pound lefthanded pitcher who had just completed his sophomore season at N.C. State.
“To get that phone call was a dream come true.”
A dream that will have to wait, however.
You see, Justice, who sports a 95-mile per hour fastball, had made known his intention to play another year of college ball. While several other teams had inquired about his “sign-ability” before backing off, the Marlins had decided to take a chance.
We know you’re planning to return to school, Newsome told him, but in case anything changes, we think you have a lot of potential. We really like you as a pitcher.
There’s much to like.
Justice is a talented athlete whose unflappable nature belies a fierce competitive spirit. He’s motivated, coachable, team-oriented, and dedicated to his craft.
His senior year at Collegiate, his pitching line read 7-1 with a 1.05 earned run average, 70 strikeouts, and 15 walks in 60 innings. He also hit .506 with five home runs, 40 runs batted in, 22 runs scored, and an .877 slugging percentage. It was little wonder that he earned Prep League, VISAA, and Richmond Times-Dispatch Metro player of the year honors.
He’s represented the Wolfpack mostly as a relief pitcher. His freshman year, he was 2-0 with a 6.83 ERA. In 27.2 innings, he struck out 28, walked 16, and allowed 32 hits. As a sophomore, he improved to 4-0 with a 4.66 ERA, 36 K’s, 17 walks, and 31 hits-allowed in 42.1 innings.
In the summer of 2018, he played for the Charlottesville Tom Sox (Shenandoah Valley League) and in 2019 for the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod League, the nation’s premier showcases for college talent.
On a recent visit to his alma mater, Justice, a sports management major who’s on schedule to graduate in May 2021, reflected upon his athletic journey that began when he was an eight-year-old kid playing in the Tuckahoe Little League.
Speak about the transition from high school to college.
It was a big step up. I had to learn to balance school with baseball. The game is faster. There’s a lot of talent on the field at all times. Adjusting to the talent and figuring out what to do to be successful was very important.
When did you start to feel comfortable playing college ball?
Towards the end of my freshman fall. At the beginning, I didn’t perform as well as I’d like to, but I stuck with it. I dialed up my work ethic and worked harder. Then I started to feel at home.
How did the Cape Cod experience aid your development?
I had the opportunity to work on what I needed to do to get better like consistently locating all my pitches. I’m a fastball-heavy pitcher. My goal was to work on my change-up and slider. Changing speeds at this level is vitally important. That’s what gets the really good hitters out.
How do you play baseball year-round and stay healthy?
Arm care is super important. You do exercises for your shoulder, elbow, forearm, biceps, triceps…every part of your arm. At NC State, we have a great trainer, Scott Ensell. He’s a really smart guy who knows what he’s talking about and is really pro-active with the staff. A good throwing program is really important: starting at a shorter distance and lower volume of throws and progressing into a farther distance and a heavier volume of throws.
Seems you spend more time preparing than actually pitching?
Absolutely. Preparation is super-important, not just right before an outing but in the off-season and on off-days. It’s really important to stay on top of your program and do the proper stretching exercises to maintain arm strength. I’ve really bought into the arm care philosophy. Knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it has been a big help.
You weighed 170 when you left Collegiate. How have you added 35 pounds without losing speed and quickness?
We have a nutritionist who recommends healthy foods and how often we should be eating and what to stay away from. I try to eat every two to three hours but not just a snack. I eat a lot of protein and carbs. Grilled chicken is good. A lot of protein bars. Sandwiches: ham, turkey, cheese. And salads to keep a healthy diet. I don’t really eat fast food. As an athlete, it’s best for your body if you don’t. That’s something I’ve embraced. I know the importance of being strong and how it can help you on the field.
What’s been the highlight of your college career?
Last season we started out 19-0 and got up to No. 1 in the country in a few polls. During that stretch, I could definitely sense something special on the team. We were playing with a certain attitude and demeanor that was special to be part of. That was a really cool experience at NC State.
I was also on the Contuit Kettleers that won the Cape Cod championship. That was another special experience where a group of guys who didn’t know each other put together such a good baseball team and became good friends.
Speak about the 2020 MLB Draft.
I’m definitely committed to playing pro ball. This year, I would say I’m a much more sign-able prospect. I wanted to play college sports, and I’ve been able to do that. Playing professional sports has always been a dream of mine. Baseball is a path now that I’ve made this commitment.
What advice would you give a young kid who wants to compete at the next level?
Be passionate about what you do and work hard. That’s what separates you from everybody else. There’s a lot of talent out there. The guys who end up making it consistently have that work ethic and are really passionate about what they do.