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June 28, 2010

STANDING TALL - Justin Wright may not be the biggest dude on the block, but his pitching helped the Hokies get back to the NCAAs for the first time in 10 years

By: Jimmy Robertson

Justin Wright

At the time, Justin Wright probably wasn’t analyzing how much he had in common with a rather famous Biblical figure.

Instead, as he prepared to take on Georgia Tech’s mighty batting lineup before the Hokies’ game against the Yellow Jackets in the first round of the ACC Tournament, he warmed up with the intent purpose of throwing each pitch precisely at its predestined spot.

Then, like David, the famous Biblical figure who slew a nine-foot tall giant named Goliath with only a slingshot and a pebble as a kid in one of the most told stories of all time, Wright simply went out to the mound unabashed and brought Georgia Tech tumbling down.

Wright wasn’t armed with much more than a slingshot and a pebble himself. Standing only 5-foot-9, he used his weapons of choice – his left arm and a white ball – as he took on a Georgia Tech lineup that consisted of a No. 2 hitter that stood 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and the next four hitters that checked in at 6-2, 220; 6-4, 228; 6-3, 215; and 6-2, 190, respectively. Those guys were giants by baseball standards.

But nearly three hours after the battle, Wright felt invincible after handling the powerful Yellow Jackets in a 6-2 victory.

“It was just one of those nights when everything was working,” Wright said.

That classifies as an understatement. Wright, a junior left-hander from Montclair, Va., pitched all nine innings and struck out 15 Yellow Jackets. He easily surpassed his career high and came within three strikeouts of tying the school’s single-game record.

Georgia Tech came into the game ranked sixth in the country and featured one of the nation’s best hitting lineups – the Yellow Jackets ranked second nationally in home runs. The Yellow Jackets also boasted one of the best pitchers in Deck McGuire, a first-team All-ACC member. But Wright out-dueled them all, throwing 82 of his 123 pitches for strikes.

His performance – not just in this game, but also for his entire career – led to him getting drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft. As a result, he faces a decision no less larger than Georgia Tech’s lineup – to leave the school that gave him a chance or get paid for the sport he loves?

His is a familiar story, one of a young boy playing catch with his father in the backyard. That’s essentially how Wright’s interest in the sport of baseball came about.

He grew up in the northern Virginia, the son of Wayne and Dawn Wright, and like most young kids, he participated in multiple sports. Unlike most, though, it didn’t take him long to find his favorite and that decision was made easier because of Wayne’s willingness to be a true father and spend quality time with his son.

“When he was 3, just a little tyke, we got him a batting tee and a helmet, and he’d be banging balls off the side of the house,” Wayne said. “Then, when he was around 6, I’d have him field 50 fly balls and field 50 ground balls when I got home from work.

“I remember coming home from work and he’d be sitting on the swing waiting on me. He wouldn’t even let me take my lunch box in. He’s just had a passion for sports since he was small, especially for baseball.”

“Baseball always seemed to be my calling,” Justin said. “I used to play basketball in front of very big crowds, and I always felt nervous. But baseball and pitching felt right. I never really got nervous out there. Everything kind of clicked for me.”

Wayne and one of his friends coached Justin’s Little League team, molding a group of young kids into an outstanding team. They became a “mini dynasty” in the northern Virginia area, and that core group ultimately led Forest Park High School to the Group AAA championship game.

Justin’s senior season was perfect – in every sense. He went 11-0, including a victory in the state semifinals, with a miniscule 0.84 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 73 innings. He earned a spot on the “all” team – all-state, all-region, all-district and all-area.

Until that point, though, college scholarship offers hadn’t exactly poured into the Wright mailbox, and the Major League scouts showed little interest, all of which perplexed both Justin and his parents. After all, he put up such impressive numbers against good competition, and he was left-handed, a prized commodity for college programs and Major League teams.

The problem, if you could call it that, centered on Wright’s stature – he barely stood 5-9, and all coaches, recruiters and scouts want the streamlined 6-5 (or taller) pitcher with blazing stuff.

“It has to be,” Wright said of his height being the reasoning for the lack of attention. “Being a left-handed pitcher and putting up good numbers in high school, I guess I got looked over because of my height, but it’s a motivational thing for me to work harder than everyone else.

“I don’t have the God-given ability of being 6-6 and having a 95-mph fastball. I have to work extra hard to hit my spots and change speeds more than the big, tall guys would. I’m not as intimidating, I guess you could say.”

Old Dominion and VCU were willing to overlook his size. So, too, was Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes, who was rebuilding the Hokies’ program at the time. He wanted quality arms, and more importantly, fearless guys willing to take on the ACC’s Goliaths.

“We were the only ACC school to offer, and it’s all about stereotypes,” Hughes said. “The safe evaluation is not to sign a 5-9 lefty, but I don’t prototype kids. I never have. I want productive winners. I don’t care what it looks like. All Justin does is win.”

Hughes offered Wright a partial scholarship – most student-athletes in Olympic sports receive partial offers instead of full rides – and Wright came down for a visit in the fall of 2007. He went to a football game, and like most, he found himself caught up in the fervor.

“I had a couple of people at home who were pushing Virginia Tech – people that had played here or come here in the past,” Wright said. “They were all about Virginia Tech and how it was a great place and how they loved it.

“Really, after I came for my official visit … that really turned the page for me. I got to see a football game and got to see what the school was like. I fell in love with the place after that weekend.”

It also worked in Tech’s favor that former Hokie pitcher Brian Fitzgerald serves as a mentor to Wright. Fitzgerald, who pitched at Tech in the mid-1990s and still holds the school record for inning pitched (387.1) and ranks second in both victories (28) and strikeouts (271), pitched briefly in the majors for the Seattle Mariners and now coaches in northern Virginia. A small left-hander himself, Fitzgerald offered Wright some sage advice on how to be a successful pitcher despite not being the biggest dude on the hump.

“He was my coach my sophomore year, and I’ve worked with him since before I got into high school,” Wright said. “He was really helpful, being a lefty. He helped me a lot when I was younger.

“He told me always to work hard. There is someone out there always working, and you’ve got to remember that. He’s a little guy, just like me, and it shows that you’ve got to work harder than the other guys.”

It all added up to Wright giving Hughes a commitment, and that was the first pitch to what has turned out to be a tremendous career.

Justin Wright anchored Virginia Tech's pitching staff this season, going 8-5, which included a 15-strikeout performance against Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament.

His freshman season couldn’t have gone much better. Like most freshmen, he started out in the bullpen and won Hughes’ confidence with a series of strong outings. Hughes moved him into the rotation toward the end of the season, and Wright, in turn, rewarded him. In a late-season start against No. 1 Miami, he managed to hold the nation’s top team at bay, giving up six runs, but striking out seven in a complete-game effort.

“I put him into the rotation as a starter because every relief outing was quality,” Hughes said. “You never know with a freshman. You have to see if he’s mentally ready to go and compete. Justin’s demeanor never changed, and that’s when I knew he had it. He went out there [against Miami] and beat one of the best college lineups in the past 20 years.”

Wright finished his first year with a perfect 4-0 mark and a respectable 4.16 ERA. He gave up just 56 hits in 62.2 innings – impressive considering the use of the aluminum bat in college.

His sophomore and junior seasons have been even more impressive. He finished 7-2 last season with a 3.95 ERA despite battling ankle and hamstring injuries. This year, he went 8-5, with a 3.95 ERA. He struck out 100 in 98 innings, with 15 of those coming in the win over Georgia Tech.

“I like to work hard and try to get better every year,” he said. “I try to improve every season, and I feel like I’ve been doing that. You always expect the best and you want the best. It’s been cool being the Friday night guy and being All-ACC. It’s been pretty special.”

Wright became the first Tech pitcher to earn All-ACC honors after being voted on the second team in a vote among the conference’s head coaches in late May. He limited opponents to a .240 batting average this past season, and he also owns one of only two complete-game shutouts thrown in the ACC this season, as he blanked Wake Forest back on March 26.

The voting was conducted before the ACC Tournament. Given his performance against high-powered Georgia Tech – which ranked second in the nation in home runs at press time – he might have swayed a few more coaches to vote for him and earned a spot on the first team.

“They had a lot of lefties in their lineup, which works out good for me,” Wright said of the Yellow Jackets. “I think they have seven out of nine who are lefties. My breaking ball was my key pitch. Getting that breaking ball over for a strike and keeping those big power hitters off balance was huge. They weren’t able to sit on my fastball. I was getting two pitches over for strikes and everything worked out pretty well.”

“As his father, I can tell you it was the best game I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wayne Wright said. “It was just spectacular. But to be honest, it wasn’t anything I didn’t see when he was 10 years old and started pitching. He was hitting his spots and developing power. He was playing against 12-year-olds, but he’s always played up [against people older than him] and that’s made him better.”

Wright’s season ended on a disappointing note. In the first game of an NCAA Regional held in Columbia, South Carolina, the junior took the loss after giving up six runs on 10 hits in 5.1 innings against The Citadel in a rare sub-par outing for him. The loss sent the Hokies into the loser’s bracket, where they won two games. But their season came to an end with a loss to South Carolina on June 6.

Still, the performance wasn’t enough to keep him from getting drafted. The Cardinals drafted him in the 47th round.

“I’m shocked,” Hughes said. “I had him going anywhere from the eighth round to the 15th.

“I’d like to see him come back to school, work hard and improve against the best competition in the country, and get his degree when no one thought he could. Then get drafted next year. But that’s his decision.”

And it’s a big one. Does he sign and start getting paid to play the sport he cherishes? Or does he return to Tech to finish work on his degree in consumer studies? Neither of his parents graduated from college, so the decision weighs on him.

“Getting my degree would be a huge step for me,” he said. “I’d be the first one in my immediate family to get a degree. Neither of my parents have a college degree, so to get a degree would really mean a lot to me, especially from a good school like Virginia Tech.”

No matter what happens, he has played a major role in turning around a Tech program that advanced to the regionals for the first time in 10 years. He was part of a class that featured 13 freshmen and seven other new guys, and together, they led Tech to 72 wins over the course of the past two seasons.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot since I got to college,” Wright said. “Back in high school, you throw fastballs all day long and get hitters out. In college, you’ve really got to work on hitting your spots, especially with the metal bats. You can give up a jam-shot home run with a metal bat, so you’ve really got to concentrate on hitting your spots. I feel like I’ve been doing that since my freshman year, and every year, I’ve gotten better.”

If he signs, though, it will certainly be understandable, as he attempts to become the latest small guy to make the majors, following the likes of Tim Lincecum and Johan Santana among others.

It will take a big effort, for sure. But judging his performances at Tech, he knows all about that.