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Lanky Lefty Steps Up At Catawba Valley (N.C.) JC

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Julian Smith has had to wait a while to show what he can do.

The skinny 6-foot-4 lefthander missed all of 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery after blowing out his elbow during his freshman season at Catawba Valley (N.C.) JC in 2016. But after just four starts in his redshirt sophomore season, Smith is definitely on scouts’ must-see lists now.

The N.C. State signee began his 2018 season by holding Piedmont International’s JV team hitless over four innings while striking out nine. It was a promising start, but what he did in his next start–holding JUCO power Walters State (Tenn.) JC to two hits and one run while striking out nine in five innings–was much more impressive. Walters State has one of the best JUCO lineups in the country and has averaged 9.8 runs per game in its other 20 games.

Since then Smith has struck out 21 in 14 innings in back-to-back seven-inning outings. He’s now 3-0, 1.47, and the stuff has been as impressive as the results.

“He’s 6-foot-4 with long arms. His wingspan is definitely more than 6-foot-4, and there’s some athleticism” Catawba Valley coach Paul Rozzelle said. “Looking ahead, there could be more in there.”

Smith has generally sat at 90-93 mph and has touched 94-95 mph in recent outings. His curveball has a chance to develop into a solid second pitch, as he throws it at times with some power in the high 70s. At other times, it comes out as a slower, loopier mid-70s curve. He has a changeup he uses very infrequently.

Smith is a hard worker who has spent a lot of time working with Catawba Valley pitching coach Kris Harvey, the son of big leaguer Bryan Harvey and the older brother of Orioles prospect Hunter Harvey.

Smith’s present stuff and projection already makes him a promising arm worth being drafted relatively early on day three of the draft. But if his velocity continues to tick up and the curveball continues to sharpen, he could end up rising up draft boards.

“I would fully expect as the weather gets warmer those 4s and 5s will become more consistent,” Rozzelle said.

Hard To Hit

When Crowder (Mo.) JC sophomore lefthander Aaron Ashby gets to two strikes, he doesn’t have much of a problem finishing off a hitter.

Infielders and outfielders can take a break when the lefty is on the mound. The Roughriders ace has recorded 54 outs so far this year, 40 of those have been by strikeout. Ashby has reached double digits in strikeouts in each of his last two starts. He’s 2-1, 2.50 with 16 hits and 11 walks allowed in 18 innings. His 20 strikeouts per nine innings is the best in NJCAA Division I.

Ashby’s breaking balls were effective last year as well, as he struck out 93 in just 66 innings. But his ability to sharpen them further, and the improvements in his changeup have helped him leap to another level of effectiveness as a sophomore.

“He can really pitch,” Crowder head coach Travis Lallemand said. “The shape of the two breaking balls are completely different. One of them is a high 70s to low 80s pitch and the other sits in the low to mid 70s. I used to say that slider seemed to be his out pitch, but now he uses both of them.”

When Ashby arrived as a freshman, he sat 83-85 and touched 89. His first college outing was a nightmare–he recorded just two outs while walking eight and allowing six earned runs.

“When I took him out, I told him I bet by May we’ll be laughing about it,” Lallemand said.

Lallemand’s hunch was correct. In May, Ashby picked up a complete-game win to beat Seminole State (Okla.) JC to earn Crowder a spot in the NJCAA World Series.

Ashby is the nephew of long-time big leaguer Andy Ashby. Andy also pitched at Crowder before beginning a 14-year big league career that saw him win 98 games in stops with five teams. Now the younger Ashby is taking strides in following in his uncle’s footsteps. The mid-80s high school fastbal now sits 88-89 and he’s touching 90-91, giving him enough fastball to go with his excellent pair of breaking balls.

Ashby was a 25th-round pick of the Rangers last year. He’s signed to pitch at Tennessee next season although with the start he’s had, he’s likely to also hear his name called again during the 2018 draft.

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First-Year Coaches Steve Holm, Jordan Bischel On Different Paths To Success

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Plenty Of Power

On the first day of the season, long-time Central Florida JC coach Marty Smith had an inkling that DH Luis Medina was on track to have a big season.

The Patriots were playing at Palm Beach State (Fla.) JC. Going back to Smith’s first year as a coach, back in 1988 with Mike Piazza’s Miami-Dade (Fla.) JC team, he can remember pretty much every home run he’s seen hit at Palm Beach State.

“No one hits a home run at Palm Beach, it’s just the way wind blows there,” Smith said.

With the way the wind blows at Palm Beach, home runs are a rare treat. In 2016, there were only nine home runs hit at Palm Beach State all season. Last year, that number bumped to 13. On Opening Day, Medina (no relation to the former Indians first baseman) easily cranked a ball over the left field fence. And then he kept hitting them. Pretty soon pitchers stopped throwing him fastballs in fastball counts, so he started hitting breaking balls over the wall.

In 20 games, Medina has a NJCAA-leading 11 home runs. He also leads Division I junior colleges with 37 RBIs. The sophomore is hitting .405/.510/.886 and he’s shown he can make adjustments. He didn’t draw his first walk this season until his 10th game, but as pitchers have tried to pitch around him, he’s walked 13 times in his past 11 games.

“His pitch recognition has been better,” Smith said. “He’s drawn a lot of walks. He never was a chase guy, but now he searches out some curveballs.”

Medina isn’t really a draft prospect at this point because he’s a designated hitter who plays a little bit of first base. But he’s shown he can hit, which is helping him draw interest for make the jump to a four-year college next year. He’s yet to sign.

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