Three years ago, former Bangor High School star and University of Maine pitcher Justin Courtney was facing an uncertain baseball future.
He was undrafted and trying to find a pro team to pitch for. This spring, he was pitching against major-league hitters in spring training games for the New York Mets and could wind up with their Triple-A team sometime this season.
With help from Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, Courtney has improved his 12-to-6 curveball to go with his 93-95 mph four-seam fastball, his changeup and a new cutter. Courtney portrayed a young Ryan in a documentary called “Facing Nolan” that came out last year on Netflix.
Courtney and pitching guru Tom House had dinner with Ryan and his family in Texas in January, and Courtney said he and Ryan spent time talking about curveballs. In addition to his famed fastball, Ryan also had a nasty curveball that would buckle the legs of right-handed hitters.
He didn’t want to divulge the tips Ryan gave him, but he said “they have certainly helped and I intend to use my curveball more” and that the legendary pitcher was “one of the nicest people I have ever met.”
Courtney has made five spring training relief appearances for the Mets and is 0-1 with a 6.23 earned-run average. He has allowed seven hits in 4 1/3 innings but has struck out five and walked just one. Although the numbers aren’t impressive, Courtney, who finished last season with the Double-A Binghamton Rumble Ponies, said it has been a “great spring” in Florida.
In his major highlight, Courtney pitched a scoreless ninth inning in a 2-2 tie with Atlanta on Thursday, retiring all three hitters he faced and striking out one.
“It has been a blast,” he said. “It’s a great way to learn.”
He is pleased with how far he has come since beginning his pro career in the Los Angeles Angels organization in 2021, “but I think my best is still ahead.”
While Courtney is getting closer to pitching in the major leagues, he noted there is still more work to do and the key to being successful will be throwing three pitches consistently for strikes. His slider has turned into a faster cutter.
“It has been a great pitch for me this spring,” he said. “If you can throw three pitches for strikes, it makes you more unpredictable. You have to attack the strike zone.”
His cutter now sits at about 85-86 mph with late break, cutting toward the pitcher’s glove hand which usually results in weak contact. Former New York Yankees Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera broke countless bats with his cutter, which was effectively the only pitch he threw.
Courtney will find out where he will begin the season on Monday with the two likely choices being back with the Rumble Ponies or with the Triple-A Syracuse Mets, one rung down from the big-league club.
He spent most of last season with Class A Brooklyn, where he was 5-3 with six saves and a 4.21 ERA over 47 innings. In Binghamton, he had no record with a 3.68 ERA in 7 1/3 innings. Between the two teams, he allowed 58 hits in 54 1/3 innings with 26 walks, 55 strikeouts and five homers allowed.
Courtney has quickly gone from an unsung pitcher at the pro level to the upper echelon of the Mets system, with SB Nation putting him on a recent list of Mets prospects to watch outside the top 25 in the organization.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Courtney has observed that the path to the Major Leagues comes down to one simple thing: putting the pitch where you want to put it with the proper velocity and rotation.
“The AA pitcher may be able to execute it twice every five pitches; the AAA pitcher can probably do it three times and the major-leaguer can execute it four times out of five,” he said.