Pro sports can be cruel.
In April, former Bangor High School and University of Maine standout Justin Courtney was just one step away from realizing his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues. He was pitching for the Class AAA Syracuse Mets, the top minor league affiliate of the National League’s New York Mets.
Ten weeks later, he was without a job after being released by the Major League club.
But, six days later on July 4, he was signed by the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. Atlantic League teams aren’t affiliated with Major League teams.
“It’s crazy how it all happened and how fast it happened. I wouldn’t have thought I would have gone from being a phone call away [from the Major Leagues] to being on Long Island,” said the 27-year-old Courtney. “At the same time, there is a reason for it, and I am better off for the experience.”
Courtney’s surprisingly quick demise in AAA Syracuse and AA Binghamton was primarily caused by the eight home runs he surrendered in just 24 ⅓ innings of work over 16 relief outings. He had a 1-3 record and one save in three chances. Opponents hit just .216 against him but nearly half the hits he allowed left the ballpark.
“Never in my career have I given up home runs like that,” Courtney said. “I was making mistakes with pitches over the plate, and they were hitting them over the fence.”
The velocity on Courtney’s four-seam fastball has inexplicably dipped from 94-96 mph to 91-93 mph this season, and that coincided with his facing significantly better hitters in AA and AAA than he had in the low minors.
“You have a better chance of getting away with a 99 mph fastball down the middle than you do with a 92 mph fastball,” Courtney said. “Every hitter in AAA and AA has a chance to take you deep. They get paid to hit home runs, especially in today’s game when they all try to leave the yard on every swing.”
If he doesn’t throw 94 mph, which is the Major League average for a fastball, Courtney said he has to be able to locate his pitches and keep them away from the middle of the plate.
“I wish I could go back in time and execute my pitches better because if I did, I’d still be in the Mets organization,” Courtney said. “But, at the same time, I’m not going to spend time playing the ‘what if’ game. I’m here with the Ducks to gain more experience.”
With the Ducks, Courtney is 0-2 with a 4.85 ERA in five outings. He has allowed 13 hits in 13 innings but just one homer. He has struck out 12 and walked three.
Despite his struggles this season, Courtney stressed that he “isn’t even close” to giving up his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues as he’s just in his third season of professional baseball.
“I still feel strong and I still believe I can make it to the Major Leagues,” said the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Courtney, who was also a soccer and hockey player at Bangor High. He was also a Freshman All-American and All-America East second team selection at UMaine.
He hasn’t pitched for more than a week because of a blister that he blames partly on the humidity but also on the baseballs used in the Atlantic League, which are different from the ones in AA and AAA.
He is awaiting a shipment of Stan’s Rodeo Ointment that will toughen the skin on his hands and reduce the likelihood of blisters. He had been using zinc oxide and soaking his right hand in pickle juice while also submerging it in a bucket of rice between innings.
Courtney’s cutter has been his best pitch and he said his new slow split-fingered/changeup has been effective. He also throws a slider.
He said playing with the Ducks and manager Wally Backman, the former New York Mets second baseman, has been a great experience. He has learned a lot from Backman, he said.
His team leads the Atlantic League in players with Major League experience, he said.
When his blister is healed up, he expects to be in the starting rotation.
“I will be getting a chance to pitch more consistently and becoming a starting pitcher will be a good thing for my career,” said Courtney, who noted that it will help his stock because he has shown he can be a starter, a middle reliever, a setup man or a closer.
“I just want to finish strong,” he said, “help my team win a championship and continue to get better so I can get back into affiliated baseball.”