Every day, Mike Wallace arrives at Boyce Cox Field with a goal, “something I want to get better at.” The rookie right-hander started that tradition three years ago, when he was a freshman without a scholarship, trying to earn a spot on the baseball team at Fairfield University.
Wallace was following advice from Stags pitching coach Trevor Brown.
“(Brown) told me, ‘There’s a bigger picture for me, besides playing ball at Fairfield,'” Wallace said. “I need to go about every day, every game, as a professional. It motivated me, and set the pace for the rest of my career at Fairfield. Ever since he told me that, I looked at baseball a different way.”
That attitude helped Wallace earn a scholarship – and a spot in the starting rotation – at Fairfield. Just after his junior season, he was selected by Pittsburgh in the 30th round, No. 907 overall, in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft.
But the professionalism which Wallace displayed actually materialized far earlier, according to his younger brother, Gavin. Born 18 months apart, the duo grew up playing baseball together since Mike was 4 and Gavin 2 1/2.
“We were going to play until we had to stop, until we couldn’t go any further,” said Gavin Wallace, a rising sophomore pitcher at Fairfield.
“Whether that was high school, college, the minors, wherever. We said we’re going to work as hard as we can until that day comes, and we can’t play anymore. We wanted to be able to look back and say we gave it all we’ve got.”
All four Wallace siblings – Mike; Gavin; 17-year-old Maggie; and Brian, a rising sophomore at Madison – have all played baseball or softball, starting out in the family’s backyard with their father, Michael. Mike and Gavin came up together in Little League, American Legion, and the North Jersey Cardinals, as well as at Madison.
They played together as Madison won the NJSIAA North 2 Group II title, with Mike Wallace going 9-2 with a 1.83 ERA in his senior season.
“He loves to compete, loves to be in the spotlight on the mound and take the ball in his hands,” Fairfield head coach Bill Currier said. “He’s one of the classiest kids we have on the team, but when he gets on the mound, it’s ‘I don’t care who you are. I’m going to throw the ball by you, and I’m going to beat you.'”
When Mike Wallace arrived at Fairfield, he was 6-foot-4 and about 165 pounds, “a tall drip of water,” according to Currier. He spent much of his freshman season focusing on control of his fastball – estimated at 87 or 88 miles per hour – and slider. Wallace also added 25 pounds to his lanky frame.
Wallace’s key pitch is a “plus changeup,” along with a fastball and curve. Keeping the ball down and forcing ground-ball outs, he had a 2.64 ERA and a league-leading five complete games in MAAC play.
What attracted the eyes of scouts, particularly from Pittsburgh and Texas, was the 21-year-old’s size (6-4, 190) and growth potential, as well as his ability to pitch. The Pirates have had him in mind since the 2014 MAAC Tournament.
However, Wallace threw 72.2 innings in his junior season, including at least six in each of his final nine starts, so he might have a slower rookie summer. With 18 pitchers on Bristol’s roster, pitching coach Jeff Johnson will have to spread the innings out.
Wallace made his pro debut with the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League affiliate on July 9, giving up one hit in the seventh and striking out the side in the eighth inning against the GCL Blue Jays. Wallace thought it was just the second time he’d struck out the side since high school.
He moved up to the Pirates’ Bristol (Va.) rookie-league team, the next day. Wallace allowed one hit and an earned run in his first appearance there on Sunday.
“The first one was awesome,” said Wallace, who already had an education in minor-league life from his cousin, righty Bobby Flannigan, a former third-round pick of the Minnesota Twins who got as far as Triple-A in six seasons.
“I was excited and a little nervous at the same time. … I was focused on throwing strikes and attacking the hitter. I thought to myself, ‘If I keep doing the same thing that got me here, I’ll be fine.’ Things worked out my way.”