Like many other ballplayers, Linfield pitcher Justin Huckins traces his connection to baseball back to tee ball at the age of six. By the time he reached Summit High School, Huckins was a well-rounded three-sport athlete, adding participation in football and basketball. “My parents are definitely my biggest role models,” Huckins says. “They showed me how to do the right thing all the time and taught me to put my best effort into whatever I do.”
As Huckins’ prep career wound down, he prepared to take his versatile talents to the collegiate level. Upon becoming a Linfield Wildcat, some major changes for the better lay ahead.
Making the Switch
Huckins remembers playing third base and outfield in high school, as most players who pitch at the prep level also bat and play other defensive positions. In modern professional baseball, players are either strictly pitchers or position players, and while there have been a few exceptions to this rule in recent years at the Major League level, specialization has been a consistent theme over the past three decades in the sport. The collegiate level is somewhat a hybrid of the two extremes, though most players make a firm decision as to whether they will pitch or play the field.
For Huckins, the decision to stick to pitching wasn’t a difficult one. Yet another more complicated determination lay in front of him in terms of his role within the pitching staff at Linfield. “I mostly started in high school, and I didn’t really make the switch until I got (to Linfield),” Huckins notes on his adjustment to the role of closer. “I had to learn how to get hot really quick. Now I have anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes to be ready versus 30-40 minutes that a starter has.”
“His ability to be a team guy and to understand he’s not going to get the same innings as a starter is one thing that stands out about Justin,” Linfield coach Scott Brosius says. “His time on the mound is not as predictable, but the fact that he assumed the closer role shows that he really cares about the team and the team goals.”
There are key differences between catching a starter and a closer, says senior catcher Kyle Chamberlain, who explains that Huckins does not have the luxury of establishing the strike zone early on. “A starter is able to throw a first-pitch fastball for a strike without feeling too much pressure,” Chamberlain says. “For Huckins, depending on the situation, he can’t just throw one right down the middle. He is confident on the mound and trusts his stuff, and he wants to be the guy in one-run games.”
While Huckins may not have known he would be making the switch when he decided to come to Linfield, he admits his confidence in the coaching staff is one of the main reasons he decided to become a Wildcat. “Linfield has a really good education program and the baseball team has had a lot of success because the coaching staff is probably the best in the nation,” Huckins says about his desire to become a teacher as well as to play college baseball.
The closer mentality
In many ways the closer is the last line of defense for a team. He is trusted with the slimmest of leads in the most crucial situations with the understanding that one mistake could prove to be detrimental. “It takes a special breed of person to be a reliever at our level,” Brosius says about the task of being a collegiate closer. “You have to constantly be on guard and in ready mode to come into a game at any time.”
“You’re the kicker of the baseball team,” Huckins says. “You have to be confident in everything you do and understand that the situation isn’t always as intense as it seems.”
A certain personality type is often associated with being a closer. Many at the Major League level have gained stardom by unique antics and displays of emotion on the field. Heath Bell would sprint at full speed from the dugout when called upon to close games in San Diego, the Giants’ Brian Wilson grew out his beard to an unruly length and died it jet black, and Jose Valverde earned the nickname ‘Papa Grande’ when his gesture after recording the final out of Tigers’ games became his trademark. The quirkiness and ability to tolerate high-stress have transcended from the Major Leagues down to the collegiate level, and it is often times the players who naturally possess these attributes who falls into the role of a closer.
“Being able to control the raw emotions and pitch through it and to treat it like it’s any other game or time on the mound are some of the keys to his success thus far,” Brosius says about Huckins’ ability to harness his adrenaline.
“You can tell how much he cares and he is definitely a momentum pitcher,” Chamberlain says. “When he gets a big out, he will let you know and he is going to celebrate.”
It is evident that Huckins’ has a unique ability to keep calm even in the most strenuous circumstances, and his ability to block out background noise and focus on his job is what has contributed to his success. “You just have to do what you do, live low, don’t try to do anything special, and let what happens, happen.”
Not your typical ninth-inning man
Huckins has fully embraced his role as a closer, but it is undeniable that his time spent as a starter has proven to be a big part of his value to the ‘Cats. Huckins has seven saves in 2013, one shy of Linfield’s single-season record, but the nature of his appearances are atypical of a normal closer. Huckins has thrown 37 1/3 innings, the most of any reliever on the squad, and has struck out 31 batters against just seven walks on the season. His ERA is a microscopic 1.45 and opposing hitters are batting just .227 off of the junior right-hander. Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that he has thrown two or more innings in 12 of his 16 appearances, seven of which have been stints of three innings or longer.
“As situations in close games change, his role might change,” Brosius says. “Whether he is throwing one or three innings he takes pride in being the best in whatever we ask of him.”
Brosius and Chamberlain each cite Huckins’ performance in last month’s Northwest Conference championship-clinching series against George Fox as an accurate portrayal of his value to the program. After Linfield won the first two games of the three-game set, Zach Brandon started Game 3 with a chance to give Linfield the NWC crown outright with a victory. Linfield’s No. 3 starter came through with his best appearance of the season, throwing nine outstanding innings. Bruins starter Tom Zarosinski matched Brandon frame-for-frame, and after nine innings, the game was deadlocked at 1. Huckins took the ball in the top of the 10th and proceeded to throw four shutout innings that set up Kramer Lindell’s title-clinching, walk-off double in the bottom of the 13th.
“He is an emotional guy and cares a ton about winning and the team, and we really saw that during the George Fox series,” Brosius recalls. For his consistent excellence throughout the season, Huckins was honored as a second team all-NWC selection.
Huckins’ ability to throw multiple innings is perhaps his greatest attribute and he proved it when the ‘Cats needed him most in championship game of the Austin (Texas) Regional on May 18. Linfield downed Trinity 3-1 to advance to the NCAA Division III Finals. But when the last out was recorded, it was starter Chris Haddeland on the mound, not Huckins. That’s because earlier that day, Huckins had done something he had never done before in a Linfield uniform: He started a game.
Huckins threw 3 1/3 innings, allowing just one run on two hits with no walks, setting the stage for Linfield’s offense to propel the Wildcats to the win. “It takes a special guy to always be physically and mentally prepared, because each weekend could be completely different,” Brosius says.
Taking the next step
Linfield opens the NCAA Division III Finals against No. 7 Ithaca. The ‘Cats have already set the program record for most wins in a season (38) and are looking to enter unprecedented territory by taking home Linfield’s first baseball national championship in the Division III era.
The fact that the team’s fastest player and leadoff hitter (Tim Wilson), No. 3 hitter and biggest power source (Jake Wylie), and best pitcher (Haddeland) are all D3baseball.com First Team All-Americans is a testament to Linfield’s well-rounded squad. “This is the best chemistry I’ve ever seen on a team without a doubt. We all understand what we each need to do to improve the team as a whole,” Huckins says about the top-ranked team in the nation. “Timmy’s effort and leadership throughout. And Jordan Harlow is always keeping us mentally in the game. Those are a couple of guys who really stand out,” Huckins adds.
Though Huckins isn’t on the field as frequently as position players, his impact on team chemistry is a major reason why Linfield has advanced to the Finals. “He has a great sense of humor and is a fierce and fiery competitor on the mound,” Brosius says, “His head is always in the game and as a teammate he gets along with everybody.”
“His energy and passion are definitely his biggest contributions to the team,” says Chamberlain.
Huckins is a math major who has his heart set on teaching and coaching baseball after earning his degree from Linfield in the spring of 2014. “I would like to be a pitching coach, probably at the high school level. And I am looking into Teach for America,” Huckins says, referencing the teaching program focused on providing education for underprivileged youth in the United States.
The Division III Finals mark the end of the road for every team and the eventual champion will be the group that pulls out all the stops and is able to win under even the most unpredictable circumstances. Players will play in new positions, power hitters will lay down sacrifice bunts, and most certainly of all, pitchers will be called upon to throw in just about any situation imaginable. While it’s impossible to anticipate the nature of these situations until they occur, one thing the Wildcats can be certain of is that when the time comes, no matter the inning, score, who is on base or at the plate, they have a premier stopper in the battle-tested right arm of Justin Huckins.
-- Evan O'Kelly '13