CLEARWATER, Florida, 19 June - Now is the time.
It’s time for Josh Warner to step into the pitching spotlight. It’s his time to excel. He’s already impressed, but now it’s time to do so on a bigger stage.
Monday marks the season opener in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Philadelphia Phillies short-season Class-A affiliate Crosscutters. Warner is scheduled to make the first Opening Day start of his blossoming career, and he’s ready for it.
The Crosscutters will host a crowd that is sure to be abuzz with excitement, as most are for the beginning of a new baseball season. The hometown crowd will back their 19-year-old starter, who is starting to grow accustomed to pitching in front of larger audiences.
Warner has already made two starts for the Class-A Lakewood BlueClaws this season after proving to his coaches and teammates at extended spring training just how capable he is. Though everyone else saw the potential of the right-hander, his first call up still came as a bit of a shock to him.
“I was playing cards in the morning one time after a workout and the coach comes up and he’s like, ‘Josh I need to see you for a minute,’” Warner said. “I was a bit bummed, I was like, ‘Geez, I’m in the middle of my game right now,’ and I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll be back in a minute guys.’
“So I go into the coach’s office and the manager was like, ‘How are you going?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, alright,’ still bummed about not playing my card game. He was like, ‘You’re going to Lakewood,’ and my eyes just lit up. I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, only for one game, but it will be good experience and get you ready for the season.’”
Warner’s first outing in Lakewood didn’t go exactly to plan. The young pitcher started well and he got on a bit of a roll but his confidence dipped when he ran into some trouble. He regained his poise post-game, however, after realizing what he’d been able to accomplish and where his arm had taken him.
“At first, there’s always that doubt when you get up to a new league,” Warner said. “It was like, ‘Am I capable of pitching up there?’ And I got out there in the first two innings, no hits; shut them out, pretty good. I broke three bats I think. I was pretty happy about that.
“Then I just stopped pitching fastballs in and got hit a little bit and then my confidence went down. But after the first couple innings I knew I could pitch up there. It was good. I definitely think I can get up there again this year and I’ve proven that I can actually pitch at that level.”
Brisbane Bandits manager Kevin Jordan has watched Warner’s confidence steadily climb throughout the time he’s known the Aussie pitcher. He’s been impressed by what he’s seen from Warner of late.
“I think it just took him a little time to get used to it,” Jordan said. “He’s way more confident now. He’s way more comfortable. That’s what’s great about the lower level of the minor leagues because you get that chance, it’s almost like you get a ton of schooling down here. Then when guys are ready now you can go to school, which is playing in like a Williamsport, with fans and a national anthem and a crowd, like what these guys want to do.
“But you get your schooling down here in extended and go, at these levels to almost where you can fail, have failure and success and be in a smaller arena. Then when they feel that you’re ready to go up then now you can go on up and see how you can handle yourself up there playing with the bigger boys so to speak. I think he’s definitely come a long way in a year.”
Warner obviously proved his capabilities to the rest of the brass in the Phillies organisation, because he earned another call-up on Wednesday. He got his first win of the year in a shortened game, getting him ready for the short-season in Williamsport.
What got Warner ready for his starts in Lakewood were experiences that he had in the Australian Baseball League, pitching for the Bandits.
“I was [nervous] at first,” Warner said of his call-up. “I was warming up in Lakewood and I wasn’t that nervous and then you get out there and you kind of look around. But I think when you’re focused and zoned in you don’t even think about the crowd at all and it’s not that bad.
“In Adelaide I think I pitched in front of 3,000 or something this year, so it was a good warm-up for [Lakewood]. I’m not as nervous now. I was in the first season of the ABL when I went into Adelaide at first. I was real nervous because there was a crowd there but I think I’m getting better at it. I’m not quite ready for 50,000 yet but I can handle a couple of thousand.”
The right-handed hurler is better prepared to handle any situation that comes his way this season, in part thanks to Jordan, who doubles as a hitting coach in the Philadelphia organisation.
“It’s going to kind of sound strange but KJ’s probably helped me the most,” Warner said. “He’s a hitting coach and everything but he was here last year and he’s here this year and there are just times where he’s not doing much I’ll go and talk to him. I’ll talk to him about baseball and pitching and stuff and he tells me a lot. I learn a lot from him.”
So what does the young native of Surfer’s Paradise learn from the hitting coach?
“I don’t think it’s really pitching that he talks about,” Warner said. “It’s more the mental side he’s helped me out a lot with, like getting down on myself. He points out positives and he just says I need to work on not showing emotion or just forgetting the last pitch and getting after the next guy and not to give the hitters down here too much credit.
“He tells me what the hitters down here are looking for so I don’t throw those pitches, where to miss and where I shouldn’t miss. It’s a lot more to do with the mental side than the physical and mechanical things that he talks to me about because that’s not his forte. But because he used to be a hitter, he knows what the hitters want and stuff so talking to him is good.”
Jordan offers a hitter’s perspective to his Bandits pitcher in Florida, letting him know what goes through the mind of the guys at the plate and what they might pick up from his body language and his hold. He also tries to help all of his young pupils deal with facing the pressures that might await them at higher levels.
“I try to work with guys when they’re starting even now so that they get used to it,” Jordan said. “They’ll face it more the higher they go. Right now you can take a guy here that plays, if they play today, and he might feel like it’s a ton of pressure but it’s really not.
“Pressure’s something that we put on ourselves. If he was up in Lakewood and [someone is] hitting in the eighth inning and the crowd’s yelling, that’s going to be a little more pressure than [being] here.
“So I try to give them things, I talk to them about things like that, things that they’re going to experience at the higher levels, not just from playing but even the attention that they’re going to get, whether it be from people watching the games or friends and family.”
Brisbane’s skipper has seen vast improvements in Warner during the time they’ve spent together, both in Australia and overseas.
“Stuff-wise he’s always getting better,” Jordan said. “He’s physically getting bigger and stronger. He’s able to obviously pinpoint his location even better. He already had a real good curveball when he came here, even last year. His changeup, from watching him, has gotten better.
“I think he’s getting better at handling situations that don’t go his way. I think that’s tough for a young player when you show up to play and you’re all excited and then you look out there and you go, ‘Geez, these guys are good.’ And everyone’s good.
“You kind of forget; it’s normal or natural for a player to forget how good they are because you show up and you go, ‘Geez, everyone’s good.’ Well you know what? You have to know, ‘I’m good too. I’m here for a reason too.’”
Warner has been good enough so far this spring to earn him two calls up to the next level and the Opening Day start for the Crosscutters. A fierce competitor, the teenager has still been able to support his teammates throughout extended spring training, even while fighting for his the spot he so rightfully earned.
“He’s good,” Steven Inch, Warner’s friend and teammate said. “He’s supportive. He’s good to talk to about baseball. He has some good points on everything. We’ll talk about mechanics or how to pitch guys and I think that’s pretty key. Baseball’s an individual sport but if you can get information from everybody else, it’s a good thing to be able to do.”
Warner is looking forward to the season in Williamsport, in an environment where the competition doesn’t include his own potential teammates.
“It’s tough here because you’re fighting for a job,” he said. “You want your team to do well and you want to win but you also want to do better than your other teammates because we’re all fighting for a job...ultimately you’re trying to beat them.
“When we get in-season it’s a lot different. Down here, the games don’t matter for anything so you’re just fighting for a spot and trying to get up to Williamsport. I think during the season it’s going to be about winning games and not about how well you’re going. As long as the team wins, it’s all good.”