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By MATT MARTZ / Special to The Californian
BY RON STAPP, Special to The Californian
As a child Justin Miller groomed his baseball skills in the shadow of Historic Sam Lynn Ball Park.
After games at the JBA complex, now the home of the Northwest Bakersfield program, Miller and his friend Juan Martinez, now in the San Francisco Giants organization, used to chase down home run balls from the adjacent minor league stadium and use them as batting practice balls at Martinez's batting cage in front of his home.
More than a dozen years later, Miller finds himself on the other side of the fence, pitching for the hometown Bakersfield Blaze, a high-class-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers.
"I thought it would be weird to put on a Blaze uniform, now that I'm doing it, my friends and family come out to the game. It's a blast," Miller said. "Just to think I grew up playing on these little league fields over here and the batting cages over there, it's weird. It's just weird; I get paid to stay in my home town."
Miller made his debut for the Blaze on the road at Visalia on Aug. 2, setting up a homecoming five nights later when he tossed two perfect innings against the Lancaster JetHawks, thrilling the large contention of family and friends with three strikeouts.
"Obviously we were very excited about having him come home, simply for the reason that we can see him play," said Todd Miller, Justin's father, who reached Double-A with the Philadelphia Phillies organization in the 1980s. "I know the general family has been very excited about his success. The fact that his grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles and friends were able to come out and see him play, it's been very nice for everyone, not just for Justin, but for the entire family."
The Blaze has to be equally as impressed. Following a rough outing in his debut in Visalia, when Justin flew in and arrived just before game time, he has been nearly unhittable.
"I'm getting pretty comfortable," Justin said. "My first outing was a little shaky, but since then I've kind of settled in and got my command and feel pretty good."
In his eight games since, Justin has given up just one run in 12 innings. He has allowed just five hits, walking five and striking out 12. He recorded saves against San Jose on Aug. 13, and another Aug. 20 against Inland Empire, and registered his first win in his last outing Saturday at Modesto, that clinched Bakersfield's first playoff spot since 2001.
"He adds something to our bullpen," Blaze pitching coach Dave Chavarria said. "Obviously we lost some guys from the bullpen that are in Double-A right now. He's come in and filled in those roles that we missed. It gives us a little more mobility in the bullpen. He's done what we've asked him to do and he's fit in perfectly and done a really good job."
Relying on a fastball clocked as high as 96 mph and a hard slider, Miller has a good shot of being promoted to Double-A at some point next season, Chavarria added.
"With what he's showed, I don't have any doubt that at some point, whether the start of next year, at some point next year, he's at double-A," Chavarria said. "For what he's doing, he has pretty good stuff."
Justin's "stuff" has continued to improve, particularly his fastball, which Todd says was between 82-84 MPH in high school.
"I was pleasantly surprised when I had an opportunity to watch him this year," said Todd, who threw in the mid-90s in his prime. "To see his velocity and consistently throwing as hard as he is now. I was like 'wow.' I mean I'm dad and I was even impressed. It was kind of a dad moment."
After starring at Ridgeview High and Bakersfield College, Miller passed up an opportunity to turn pro and accepted a scholarship to Fresno State in 2007.
Following a junior year in which he helped the Bulldogs to their first National championship, Miller was drafted in the 16th round of the June Amateur Draft and signed with the Texas Rangers.
After a brief stint playing in Spokan, Wash., Miller was promoted to Bakersfield on Aug. 2 and has helped push the Blaze to the brink of its first playoff appearance since 2001.
"I had good reports about what he was doing in Arizona and Spokane, he came here and he's continued to do what the reports have said," Chavarria said. "His main strength is he's an aggressive kid on the mound. He goes after hitters with what he has that day. Obviously, he has a pretty good fastball and at times he shows an extra gear with it and he has a really good slider. He uses both pitches effectively, but the main thing is he's aggressive on the mound."
Justin's aggressiveness on the mound is complemented by an incredible work ethic, something his dad says he's always had.
"Growing up, being around myself and being around baseball ever since he can remember, I never forced it on him. It was always something he was drawn to; as long as I can remember, he's always had aspirations of playing at whatever the next level was," Todd said.
"When he was in little league, I think all kids think it would be great to be playing Major League Baseball, but he kind of grabbed ahold of that at an early age and I saw in him that it wasn't just a dream. His work ethic has been incredible, it actually blew me way. He has been diligent his whole life and it's really impressed me how hard he works at his craft."