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Former Cardinal Newman pitcher maintains composure to become Giants prospect


For a pitcher, baseball is counterintuitive. The rest of humanity is asked to remember. The pitcher is asked to forget.

Baseball asks the pitcher to forget that last meatball he threw up there that was hit 500 feet, that last ground ball that went through the second baseman's legs, that last time he shook off the catcher because the catcher was an idiot for calling that curveball. Humans are taught to remember, to learn from their mistakes. In baseball, wait until you get in the dugout to think. But on the mound, fughettaboutit. Don't ruminate, agitate or gyrate on what just happened. Move on. NOW.

"If you don't," said Darryl Vice, "you're in trouble."

Vice, now a real estate executive, coached pitcher Justin Fitzgerald when Fitzgerald was a senior at Cardinal Newman in 2004. A second baseman who made it to Triple-A Tacoma in the A's organization, Vice liked what he saw of Fitzgerald that senior year. He told Fitzgerald he had the right stuff to pitch professionally, that one day Fitzgerald would get the chance to make it to the big leagues.

Fitzgerald is performing to those expectations. For the second year in a row he made it to the San Francisco Giants' big league camp in spring training. Last Friday, Fitzgerald was reassigned to the Giants' minor league camp.

"The one thing Justin had to work on the most," said Vice, 46, of their days together at Cardinal Newman, "was his composure. He had to control his emotions. He was 6-foot-5, had good mechanics, good control and good stuff. But you need to forget that last pitch and concentrate completely on the next. It's what separates the pitchers who make it from the ones who don't."

Last week, in a phone interview from Scottsdale, Ariz., Fitzgerald gave an example of how he has learned to leave the last pitch in his rear-view mirror. Of the many strategies pitchers have developed over the years to cope with a sudden setback, Fitzgerald's is among the most unique.

It has to do with a pitcher giving up a home run, the most crushing result possible, the one that can change a game in an instant. Think of A's reliever Dennis Eckersley giving up that Kirk Gibson dinger in the 1988 World Series as the ultimate example of that.

"If I give up a home run," Fitzgerald said, "it's not going to be the last home run I give up."

Because, if it is...

"Then I'm going to be out of baseball," Fitzgerald said.

Perspective is always a challenge for a competitive athlete. Perspective is the middle ground between audacity and humility. Just like Fitzgerald, the hitters in the minor leagues are on salary, too. Babe Ruth is dead and Albert Pujols is recovering from knee surgery. So he avoids the most common of temptations for a pitcher, giving the hitter too much credit.

Fitzgerald, 27, has learned that concept well. It was revealed in how he responded to this question: "Did you ever face Bryce Harper in the minor leagues?" The Nationals' Harper and the Angels' Mike Trout are the bright new talents in the game, expected to lead baseball for the next decade.

"I don't play him up because he's Bryce Harper," Fitzgerald said of their meeting in 2011. "He's a hitter I need to get out. I got him once. He got me once."

And that was the extent of the elaboration. The way Fitzgerald sees it, if he makes his pitch and the hitter loses it over the wall, so be it. The game he pitches, it's a collection of pitches, not just one that went yard. It's about developing a tougher spine to adversity. For that Fitzgerald credits former shortstop and current Giants coach Shawon Dunston, who played in the big leagues for 17 years, three with San Francisco.

"He told me, 'Don't do this for anyone but yourself,'" Fitzgerald said. "He said, 'You got nothing to prove. In the end, this is your career.'"

Fitzgerald's most obvious achievements are impressive: He was the 327th player taken in the 2008 June amateur draft, an 11th-rounder who, after two solid years at double-A Richmond, most likely will come out of spring training headed to triple-A Fresno. He was a member of the San Jose Giants team that won the 2010 California League title.

"My personal highlight was when I retired 21 straight hitters," Fitzgerald said, "pitching for San Jose against a Mariners minor league team."

This spring Fitzgerald pitched four innings in spring training, giving up seven hits and three runs, with two walks and a strikeout. From a distance those are not great numbers, but Fitzgerald offers an on-the-scene interpretation.

"My first outing was a shutout and so was the third one," he said. "In the second one I gave up four singles but I wasn't hit hard. I feel strong. My arm is healthy. I'm in good shape."

In other words, no worries. Fitzgerald didn't let four bleeders ruin his day. He moved on, with the words of Lee Smith forever with him. Smith is the Giants' roving pitching instructor who saved 478 games in his 18-year big league career. Fitzgerald said Smith gave him the best advice he's received thus far in baseball.

"When you pitch," Smith told Fitzgerald about playing in the minor leagues, "somebody is always watching you."

Watching to see if Fitzgerald has real talent, the ability to forget the pitch he just threw.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.