The diminutive 14-year-old on the mound pitched with a skill and confidence that belied his young age.
St. Joseph’s Justin Willis, a precocious freshman right-hander, lived up to the hype in his varsity debut, striking out eight and allowing just one hit over five innings in Monday’s rain-shortened 3-0 victory over Piscataway.
The West New York resident was named over the summer to USA Baseball’s 14U National Team Development Program. As part of that 40-man roster, Willis honed his skills under the tutelage of San Diego University head coach Rich Hill and Indiana University head coach Tracy Smith at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in North Carolina.
“He’s pitched in some big games, in a lot of different places and all around the country,” St. Joseph head coach Steve Bucchignano said. “Him coming out here is nothing different than what he is used to doing. His maturity based on what he’s done so far before he got here is kind of what helped him get to this level.”
Willis relied predominantly on his fastball, which was clocked around 85 mph in the preseason, the first time through the lineup before mixing in a devastating slider.
Half of his strikeout victims were caught looking and only four balls — including cleanup batter Charles Mitchell’s fourth-inning single to right-center — left the infield.
“He did a great job of getting ahead of our hitters and he really kept a lot of our guys guessing, especially as it got in the later innings,” Piscataway coach Jason Keller said. “A lot were expecting fastball and got something offspeed.”
Keller was stunned to learn that Willis is St. Joseph’s No. 4 starter on paper behind ace Brandon Bielak, junior Mark Bobko and senior Jack Harlan.
“In high school, having two good starters is a framework for building a pretty solid team,” Keller said. “When you get to even three or four it’s tough to beat. I would definitely be envious of having him as a fourth starter.”
The staff at St. Joseph (3-1) has yielded just four earned runs in 26 innings for a 1.08 ERA with Bobko having yet to throw a single frame because of his value to the team as its starting shortstop.
Bucchignano gave Willis a solid look in the preseason, during which the rookie impressed in scrimmages against Middletown South, Brick Memorial and Elizabeth. Willis’ performance against the latter convinced the St. Joseph coaching staff he needed to be in the starting rotation.
“We knew coming in he could be a varsity guy, but we weren’t sure,” Bucchignano said of Willis, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 160 pounds. “This preseason he just proved it. Based on what he’s done with the U.S. National Team and coming here, he’s got the foundation where good things can happen for him down the road.”
Willis said he is learning from the entire staff, especially senior right-hander Bielak, who will attend the University of Notre Dame on a full baseball scholarship in the fall.
“He’s been my mentor,” Willis said of Bielak, who has fanned 19 batters in 13 innings and was the winning pitcher in a 2-1 victory over Marist on Sunday night. “There’s no better kid in New Jersey that you would rather be behind. It’s just really an honor to be pitching for this staff, having the ball today and getting a start.”
Willis said his experience over the summer with USA Baseball’s National Team Development Program prepared him well for what he will face on the varsity level.
“Not many times you see kids who can really put together at-bats 1 through 9,” he said. “I’m going to be honest. I didn’t have a good outing down there (in North Carolina), but it was definitely a good experience. I know what I need to work on now. It’s going to help me for my high school.”
The Falcons, who are batting just .222 with Bielak and centerfielder Brandon Ciambruschini accounting for half of the club’s 20 hits and three of its five RBI, staked Willis to a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
Ciambruschini reached on an infield error to start the second and scored. Bielak scored on a wild pitch in the fourth before Reid Miranda plated another run with an RBI double to produce the final margin.
Bucchignano allowed Willis to throw 90 pitches through 51⁄3 innings. Willis was lifted after hitting Mitchell with one away in the top of the sixth. Before reliever Yanni Vayas could complete his warm-up pitches, the game was called as a steady rain intensified.
“For the first time out, we’re happy with where he’s at right now,” Bucchignano said of Willis. “If he continues to work and grow, I see great things from him.”