6/26/2006 – Daily News Record
Daily News Record Written By Marcus Helton The last time Justin Wood was a full-time starting pitcher, he was nearly unhittable. That was in high school, but now the James Madison University rising sophomore is getting the chance again, and the results have been nearly identical. The former Turner Ashby High School star left-hander has found a spot in the Harrisonburg Turks’ pitching rotation this summer, and hasn’t showed any signs of letting it go. As of June 22 – the last time the Turks were able to play a game, thanks to the weather – Wood was 1-1 with a team-best 1.35 earned run average in 20 innings of work, striking out 15 batters while allowing a team-low four walks. "He’s been one of our go-to guys," Turks manager Bob Wease said Sunday, after the team’s home game with Woodstock was rained out. "He’s given up three earned runs, and he’s been a great addition to the Turks. … He looks the part. He doesn’t get frustrated or anything, he just does the job." Wood’s role as a starter – he’s tied for second on the team with three starts – is one he seldom saw with the Dukes as a freshman. He went 2-0 with a save and a 5.61 ERA in 25 2/3 innings last year, recording 16 strikeouts and 16 walks. "For JMU, I was basically in a relief role," Wood said. "I got spot starts here and there, so I wasn’t really building up innings coming out of the bullpen because we had such a deep staff. I was lucky just to get as much time as did. But when I showed up for the Turks, we didn’t have that many players, so I got the opportunity to start and it worked out really good for me." Wood, 19, never had to wonder when he’d start in high school. He was TA’s ace as a senior, going 10-2 with a 1.35 ERA, tallying 64 strikeouts and allowing just eight walks to lead the Knights to a state-runner-up finish. In addition to the offer from JMU, Wood said he received interest from Virginia, Radford, Bridgewater, and Hampden-Sydney, but decided he couldn’t pass on the chance to play at a Division I level so close to his hometown of Dayton. That proximity is also what drew him to the Turks, who signed him to a contract after he helped the Clover Hill Bucks win the Rockingham County Baseball League championship last summer. Wood credited his two years in the County League with the Bucks for helping him learn how to approach batters and use his pitches effectively. Bucks manager Steve Lough said Wood was "green" when he first came to the team, but quickly developed into one of the squad’s most dependable arms. In Wood’s first season, Lough said, he was called on to start a RCBL championship series game against Broadway on just 30 minutes notice after the scheduled starter told Lough he couldn’t make it. Wood responded by throwing a shutout. "The thing that stood out the most was his composure," Lough said. "For a young pitcher, coming into the county league as a rising senior at TA and being up against some good hitters and being thrown in a playoff final position like he was, he just pitched as if it was little league. I mean, he was stone-cold and just did the job." Now, he’s doing the job so well for the Turks that Wease is calling him a pro prospect. Wood, who has already seen three JMU teammates drafted, said he has thought about a professional career. "I’d definitely like to," he said. "That’s been a goal of mine for a long time, but as of where I am right now, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of dedication. I feel like I’m doing the best I can right now, but I’m definitely going to have to keep working at it and getting better." Wood said he thinks he needs to increase his velocity – he said he has been clocked at 86 miles an hour – and develop his curveball into his second go-to pitch. He said he currently uses a four-seam fastball, a curveball, and a change-up. In high school, he relied primarily on a two-seam fastball, but stopped using it after it caused him to develop a blister in TA’s 17-1 state title loss to Tunstall his senior year. He threw just two innings in that game, and said he’s just started trying to use the pitch again this summer. Lough said he told Wood before the Valley League season that if the pitcher wasn’t playing much with Harrisonburg, he still had the option to finish the County League season with the Bucks if he joined them by June 30. With that deadline just four days away, Lough laughed as he acknowledged that the chance of Wood returning is zero. "We’d always love to have him back," Lough said, "but I hope now we don’t get him back for about 15 or 20 years when he finishes a pro career. …. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the Valley League is where he needs to be right now."