Just one year ago, pitcher Jason Mills was ready to hang up his spikes permanently. Now he looks forward to a four-year career with an outstanding Division I baseball team.
The name Jason Mills never struck much fear into the hearts of opposing batters -- until this summer. Now, whenever Mills takes the mound, he elicits a growing respect for a still-developing pitching prowess that has made him one of the most consistent and effective hurlers in the Baltimore area.
His lack of size was one reason Mills thought his baseball careermight be grounded after graduating from Atholton in 1990. In an era when even college scouts require their pitching recruits to be tall and brawny and throw an 80-to 90-mph fastball, Jason Mills doesn't seem to fit in.
Mills, all 5-foot-9, 150 pounds of him, is a throwback to the 1950s, when diminutive pitchers like the Yankees' 5-foot-10,175-pound Whitey Ford could dominate a major-league game.
Right-hander Mills is a marvel. He throws only in the 75- to 79-mph range but has dominated some high-class Baltimore-area amateur games this summer.
Take Tuesday's game against the Anne Arundel All-Stars, for instance. Mills entered with the score tied, 6-6, runners at first andsecond and no outs, in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The first batter he faced was Craig Everett, The Sun's Player of the Year in the Baltimore area. The former Northeast High School outfielder, who had tripled and doubled earlier in the game, fanned against Mills.
Mills also fanned another Northeast player, Charlie Buckheit, before retiring the final batter on a pop up. His team, Pikesville, went on to win, 7-6, in eight innings.
That was the second game of the Continental Amateur Baseball Association World Series. And his relief effort was even more impressive because he had pitched a complete-game two-hitter the day before.
Pikesville had picked him up from the Columbia Reds especially for this national tournament, which continues this weekend.
Mills' pitching career has had its ups and downs, but lately it has soared. Last fall, the former Atholton hurler overcame long odds to earn a spot on one of the nation's top college baseball teams as a walk-on.
When Mills tried out, East Carolina University's team had won four straight Colonial Athletic Association championships and, at 49-7, had posted the best Division I record in the nation the previous spring.
"They had never heard of me before and there were about 100 walk-ons trying out," Mills said. "I thought I hadno chance at all. But they held a weeklong tryout and gave everyone a real look."
A chance is all the determined Mills needed.
"They only kept five walk-ons and I felt lucky to make it," he said.
Mills never actually got to pitch for East Carolina this year, becausehe was red-shirted, but he practiced with the team and what he learned in practice has given him an edge this summer.
In 78 innings ofpitching for the Columbia Reds and 10 innings with Pikesville, he has an earned-run average of 1.67 and a 7-5 record. He has struck out 104, walked 29 and allowed 51 hits and 21 earned runs. He's thrown nine complete games.
He's only been hit hard once, with four of the five losses by one run, the other by two. Two of the losses came in extra innings.
He has pitched two one-hitters. He fanned 10, walked one and allowed one hit in a 6-2 win over the Pressman Cardinals.
He allowed one hit, fanned nine and walked three in beating Pikesville, 2-1.
He also pitched two brilliant nine-inning games in which he received no decision.
After a nine-inning effort against the Baltimore Metro League champion Beduoins, Mills left with the game tied,4-4.
Gary Overton, his coach at East Carolina, saw that game and went away impressed.
"He said he liked what he saw and that I'm coming along nicely," Mills said. "He's looking for me to be either a stopper or set-up man next spring if I pitch well this fall."
East Carolina has all four of its starting pitchers from last spring returning.
After Pikesville picked him up for the CABA World Series that began Monday in Anne Arundel County, he hurled the first game, losing that 4-3 heart-breaker to Indiana while fanning nine.
"They gotfour runs on two hits and four errors in the first inning and then didn't get another baserunner," Mills said.
Mills had a good high school pitching career at Atholton, going 1-2 with five saves his junior year and 8-1 his senior year. But he pitched his senior year in the shadow of teammate Alex Pugliese, who threw most of the important games and was The Howard County Sun's Co-Player of the Year, with Wilde Lake pitcher Howie Brown.
It wasn't until this summer with the Reds that Mills finally emerged as his team's No. 1 pitcher. Part of that success is due to his slider, a pitch Dayton coach Marvin Whittaker taught him last summer.
"Not many kids have seen a slider," Mills said. "It doesn't break more than 12 inches, but it has snap and it is a good out pitch."
Mills said he chose East Carolina because of its physical therapy program, considered one of the best on the East Coast.
"If I hadn't made the East Carolina team as a walk-on, Iwouldn't even have played baseball this summer," he said.