By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
He might just be the most nervous man in Bluefield when the Blue Jays face the Elizabethton Twins tonight at Bowen Field.
For good reason.
Joe Lovecchio, a right-handed pitcher from the University of South Florida, will make his first professional start tonight for Bluefield.
“I am pretty excited, it was a great help going to a Division I university for three years and starting for you so you kind of relax a little bit more and you know the pressures you are going to face,” Lovecchio said. “I feel good, I am confident going into it, but I will probably be a little nervous tomorrow.”
He’s not going to complain. It’s an opportunity anyone would love to have, even if it is far from the sunshine and palm trees of his native Florida.
“I was born and raised in Florida, I have had a blast, you don’t get to see these mountains real often,” Lovecchio said. “I heard it was an old town, but you come out and play on these fields.
“They are old ball parks, but the fields are great, it is in great shape. It is fun to play at it and this is minor league baseball, this is what it is all about.”
Lovecchio arrived in Bluefield just over a week ago, having been signed as a free agent by the Toronto Blue Jays after being bypassed in the amateur draft held early last month.
“You are scouted the same way,” Lovecchio said. “When your name doesn’t get called, then right as the draft ended I got a call from my scout, and he said we can’t give you any money, but we can still sign you.
“I was a senior, of course I wanted the opportunity to advance. I am here, I am still playing and doing what I wanted whether I was drafted or not.”
A two-year weekend starter for South Florida, Lovecchio was 5-6 with a 4.40 ERA as a senior for the Bulls, and was 8-4 with a 4.78 ERA the season before. He struck out 93 and walked just 34 in two years for the Big East school.
That followed one season and one start — a win — at the University of Miami and one year at Seminole Junior College, also in Florida.
“I loved my tenure at South Florida, I was a starter on the weekends for a few years and it was a blast,” Lovecchio said. “We won a lot of games and that has been good.”
Like any other baseball player with talent, the ultimate dream is play at the professional level. His opportunity came when he was signed late last month, had a brief outing at the Gulf Coast League in Florida, and then made the move to Bluefield.
“For as long as I can remember I always wanted to put on a professional uniform so it has been a blessing to be able to do that and it’s starting to get used to it a little bit more now,” said the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Lovecchio, who will turn 23 on Sept. 6. “Every day you can look down and say ‘OK, I am in a professional organization’, it is pretty cool.’”
He saw his first outing on June 26, working a third of an inning against Burlington, but was more effective three days later in Danville, going three perfect innings, striking out four and walking none.
As one of the new guys, Lovecchio had to blend in with his teammates, but that hasn’t been a problem with the close-knit Jays.
“It was tough, everyone has got their friendships and stuff like that so you have to kind of come in and just shut up and listen and see how everybody goes about doing things and then just adapt to the way the team is,” he said, “but at the same time just doing your own thing and being you.”
Lovecchio was limited to 45 pitches in his last outing, but should get at least 60 pitches or four innings tonight as the starter, with Brady Dragmire serving as his ‘piggyback’ partner on the mound.
“I didn’t expect it, when I came in I thought I would be a reliever,” said Lovecchio, who is 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA in two games for the Blue Jays. “I threw two innings down in the Gulf Coast League and they sent me up and they said it was good I could start and relieve.
“I threw a game in relief and they said I would be doing piggyback as a starter.”
Like most of the Bluefield hurlers, Lovecchio is tall, and hopes to use his 6-foot-2 height as an advantage on the mound.
“You can get a good downward plane on your fastball and that is what we are all trying to create as pitchers is get angle, get it down in the zone and for the hitters to hit on top of the ball and get a lot of ground balls,” he said. “The taller you are and the more angle you can get, the harder it is to hit.”
He is also glad to see the batters waiting to hit with wood instead of aluminum, which made it so difficult for college pitchers in what has long been an offensive game.
“It is very similar around here, they have a wood bat in their hands so you can work inside a little bit more and not be as tentative,” said Lovecchio, a native of Daytona Beach, Fla. “You can kind of attack the zone, as long as you keep your pitches down you should be in good shape and I will be in good shape.”
Adjusting to his new summer home in Bluefield has definitely been culture shock, coming from a state where mountains are non-existent and the sun is out most of the time bringing with it temperatures that soar near 90 and above.
“It is huge, being in Tampa (at South Florida), it is two hours from Daytona Beach where I was initially from so I could go back if I ever wanted to go back home,” he said. “I miss my girlfriend too, I am away from her too, it is a little bit different, but the guys here have been cool. They have allowed me to adjust well.”
Lovecchio has joined an organization in Toronto that is simply loaded with pitching. He’s just glad to be a part of it.
“We have talent everywhere, you can only control what you can control, but I am having a blast here,” he said. “We have a great team and it pushes me and I am sure other guys would say the same thing.
“It is good, it is going to help the guys above them because they are going to have to push and that triggers its way up the organization.”
Tonight will be a big moment in the life of Lovecchio. He’s just excited to get the chance that most never get.
“Once you are here you are here, and the results and the way you go about it and the way you do things and how hard you work is all impressive, not really how much you signed for,” Lovecchio said. “Just every day come out and work hard and work toward on your goal and hopefully good things will happen.”
—Contact Brian Woodson