King of the Hill

By JOE McFARLAND

Justin King used to think pitchers were dumb.

Growing up exclusively as a hitter, he always thought they only wanted to throw fastballs, so he would wait on a hanging slider or curveball so that he could send it flying.

However, King’s mindset changed in the summer of 2020, when he became a pitcher.

“Now I think these hitters are really, really dumb,” he laughed. “All they want to do is hit fastballs right down the middle, so let’s just not do that.”

The Dawgs Academy grad took to the hill for the first time in his final college season, and has turned that transition into a professional contract, as he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in June.

“Getting it officially signed and having the ability to start playing professional baseball is, honestly, a dream come true,” King told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

It’s a dream that has come faster than even he may have imagined.

PROMISE AT THE PLATE

A multi-sport athlete growing up, King says he loved hockey until he realized he wasn’t fast enough, so he decided to focus solely on baseball in high school.

A star with Dawgs Academy, King had many accolades attached to his name including being named a top prospect at the Perfect Game USA Uncommitted Showcase in 2015 and to the 2016 Canada/Puerto Rico All-Region First Team.

He followed that up with two solid seasons with Indian Hills Community College, where he was named to the All-Region XI First Team in 2018 and a First Team Academic All-Region thanks to his 4.0 grade point average.

King then moved on to the University of Alabama, where he hit .268 with two doubles, two home runs, three runs batted in and 10 runs scored in 24 games as a junior.

Unfortunately, he didn’t see any playing time for the Crimson Tide during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season.

That’s when King realized it was time for a change.

SEE WHAT HAPPENS

Like with his decision to move on from hockey, King’s choice to become a pitcher boiled down to, at least partly, his self-awareness.

His Twitter bio, after all, reads: “couldn’t hit 95 so now we a pitcher.”

Going into the summer of the pandemic, King had graduated from college and wanted to finish his Master of Public Administration degree.

He entered the transfer portal and got a call from the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Shortly thereafter, he started chatting with pitcher Tyler Lien.

“He said ‘we have to get you on the bump because you’re a lefty and it looks like you can maybe throw hard,’” King recalled. “He said he could help me with my mechanics and everything.”

Lien says it was clear from the beginning that there was more to King than being in the batter’s box.

“Honestly, it was just the first time I ever played catch with him,” he said. “We played long-toss about a week after COVID shut down the season and he was out-throwing me by 30 yards without even trying.”

King then talked it over with ULM head coach Michael Federico, who gave him the green light.

“I did one bullpen and one live session, and they started liking what they were seeing,” King said. “I think I was up to 92 miles per hour on my first time, so they were just like ‘we’ll give it a shot and see what happens.’”

NEW LEASE ON BASEBALL LIFE

King’s first appearance out of the bullpen didn’t go exactly according to plan.

He was summoned in the ninth inning of a game against Louisiana Tech on March 9, 2021, where he allowed two hits, a walk and uncorked a wild pitch to finish up with two earned runs against in a 10-3 loss.

However, King also registered his first strikeout in the contest.

As the season wore on, he saw action almost every weekend, with the highlight being an outing against Jackson State where he struck out four and allowed just one hit in over two innings of work.

His final statistical line reads a 5.91 earned-run average with seven earned runs and 12 strikeouts in nine appearances out of the bullpen.

It wasn’t a performance that had professional teams lining up to sign him, but he felt it gave him a new lease on his baseball life – as long as someone was willing to give him a chance.

BACK TO SCHOOL

With his college career over, King admits he wasn’t sure what was next.

He says Federico offered to put in a good word for him with the Florence Y’alls of the Frontier League, which sounded like a great idea until some logistics got in the way.

“The biggest problem was that I didn’t have a work visa or anything like that,” King said. “So I wasn’t actually able to play until I got that visa, which didn’t end up coming until this past March.”

With the unexpected downtime, King finished his masters and had a graduate assistant job with the ULM women’s basketball team.

Every other waking moment was spent in the baseball training facilities, with Federico offering to help in any way he could to make sure the young southpaw could face live hitters.

“Honestly, it was a good team effort from the whole university and athletic department,” the former Willmar Stingers infielder said. “They helped out with this entire situation and I am really thankful that they were able to do that for me.”

Y’ALL COME BACK

Florence was happy to bring the 24-year-old back for the 2022 season and he rewarded them with an outstanding few games.

King made five relief appearances, striking out eleven batters in just over seven innings of work while posting a 3.68 ERA.

After one of his outings during a roadtrip in Quebec, he got the phone call from the Milwaukee Brewers.

“To be honest, I wasn’t fully happy with how I pitched (that night), but I was able to get the job done,” King said. “The next day, we were just getting a workout in and that’s when they called saying they wanted to sign me.”

The former Okotoks Dawgs slugger knew the Y’alls had connections with a couple of teams, including the Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, but he wasn’t expecting to get a call so soon.

Armed with the good news, he was chomping at the bit to tell family and friends, but then he was told to hold off for just a little while longer.

“The guy who was calling me said don’t tell everybody right off the bat because you have to go through the physical work and get MRIs and everything to make sure your arm is healthy before we actually sign you,” King said.

While he confided in his close family, King went through the testing – and a longer-than-expected wait in a hotel room thanks to the Memorial Day long weekend closing some of the facilities.

Eventually, he was given the all-clear and was able to sign, at least electronically, at the start of June.

NOTHING TO LOSE

King is welcoming every day as a new learning experience with only having about a year of pitching under his belt.

He credits the work of Lien and fellow Dawgs Academy grad and college teammate Ryan Humeniuk in showing him the value of recovery time and how to maximize his rest.

“I think he has progressed a ton,” Lien said. “He went from being a guy who looked robotic and just out of place on the mound to being very comfortable with who he is as a pitcher.”

He believes King is only going to get better as he trusts his body more to be in the right positions to make a good pitch.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound King hopes that confidence will allow him to develop a full arsenal of pitches.

“Right now, I’m very confident with my fastball, especially locating it more up in the strike zone,” he said. “I’ve also developed a changeup that has been pretty good to me.”

His eagerness to put in the work has also earned him a quick ascent up the Brewers’ depth chart, starting the year with their Arizona Complex League club before joining former Dawg Tristan Peters and the High-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

“I want to keep working on my slider and curveball mix,” King said. “One is more left-to-right while the other is more north-south and being able to switch between those two would definitely be a benefit to me.”

On the mental side of the game, he says having gone through the transition recently might help him understand what hitters are thinking, but he’s still working on understanding their physical cues.

Each day, King is bringing a “what do I have to lose” mindset to the ballpark and hopes it inspires future baseball players to know that change isn’t always a bad thing.

“Starting a new path, yeah, it’s probably scary at the beginning, but the support I had from teammates and coaches and my family was tremendous,” he stated. “Eventually, it paid off and I’m really happy with the results.”

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