NEEDHAM — It doesn’t take a miracle to keep St. Sebastian’s School slugger Justin Bellinger off the basepaths, but there are times when it can feel that way.
“God bless the team that can get him out four times,” said Belmont Hill School coach Michael Grant , shaking his head. “He always had great physical gifts, but he’s gone from being a really good high school player to an exceptional one.”
Belmont Hill beat host St. Sebastian in Needham last week, 11-8, but Bellinger gave the Hillies fits, as he’s done to every opposing pitching staff he has seen this season. He went 2 for 2 with two walks and two singles against one of the best pitchers in the state, Princeton-bound Keelan Smithers of Framingham.
The 17-year-old Bellinger is a 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior first baseman and pitcher with a powerful left-handed swing and 90 mile-per-hour fastball from the left side that make him one of the top high school prospects in the country. He committed to Vanderbilt University more than two years ago — before his freshman season at St. Seb’s — and his name is already well-known by big league scouts, but their teams will have to wait another year before they have the opportunity to draft him.
The Weston resident already cuts the image of a pro. Wearing specially ordered size XXXL batting gloves, a shin guard on his right leg and an elbow protector on his right arm, he uses a 34-inch, 32-ounce Max Bat made out of maple — he is the only one in the Independent School League who opts for wood over the metal BBCOR bats — and takes long purposeful strides to the batter’s box.
“When I’m up there,” he said, “my goal is to hit the ball as hard as I can, as far as I can. I want to drive in as many runs as I can to help the team out.”
He backs up his big-league look with a rare ability to wallop baseballs. As of last week, batting in the third spot for the 6-3 Arrows, he has given St. Sebastian’s five home runs and a batting average that hovers around the .500 mark. His cartoonish numbers have actually tapered off; Bellinger started the season by hitting three homers and knocking in 11 runs in his team’s first game, a 20-2 win over Portsmouth Abby. It seems pitchers have been doing their best to avoid him, walking him rather than dealing with the inherent dangers of his swing.
That was the case Wednesday when Belmont Hill steered clear of the strike zone with the bases loaded and Bellinger at the plate, choosing to walk in a single run as opposed to risking a crooked number crossing the plate thanks to one of Bellinger’s healthy hacks.
St. Sebastian’s coach Mike Schell has seen opponents pitch around Bellinger all season, and he understands. He has had a first-hand look at just how much Bellinger has improved from the time he was a gifted eighth-grader.
“He just works to get better,” Schell said. “It’s in the classroom, in his community, he’s a good teammate. He just gets it. It’s an overall approach that you have to have. It’s not just in one area of his life. . . He’s just been great in all regards, and he continues to get better.”
Bellinger’s short, compact yet aggressive swing can change games, and generate what one National League scout dubbed “light-tower power.”
“He is a specimen in terms of physical size and raw tools,” the scout said.
“Physically he’s very gifted. He’s got big-time raw power that’s going to put him on the radar screen for everybody next year. Really, he’s a known name already among scouts, and I think if he has a good summer on the showcase circuit and the travel ball, he’s really going to put himself in a nice position.”
For years, Bellinger has spent his summers playing for some of the most competitive travel teams in the country, honing his talents against competitors who play baseball year-round. He played Weston Little League early on, but as a tall, skinny 12-year-old he began playing AAU ball and with travel teams, and his talents blossomed. That summer, he played in a whopping 111 games and hit 80 home runs.
From there, he compiled a list of accomplishments that sounds like amateur baseball folklore: as a 12-year-old he hit a home run that traveled well over 400 feet at a tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y.; he hit a home run the length of a high school soccer field in his first varsity game; at the Power Showcase Home Run Derby, which hosts players from around the globe, he hit one farther than any of his older competitors, 477 feet into the upper deck at Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The more he played, the more his name circulated in baseball circles, and he earned opportunities to play for teams based in Maryland, Alabama, Florida, and Southern California. Eventually, he was put in touch with Vanderbilt, visited the campus in Nashville before his freshman season at St. Sebastian’s, and was offered a scholarship.
He held too much promise for Division 1 schools to wait.
The jam-packed schedule of games will continue this summer as Bellinger chases his dream of one day playing in the major leagues. He will make his way to Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, South Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona for various high-level tournaments.
David Bellinger , Justin’s father, estimates that he has been to 900 baseball games in Justin’s career. Though it’s been an exhausting ride at times, he said, he knows there’s nothing else Justin would rather do.
“To get to where he wants to be, he knows he needs to work twice or three times as hard as all the kids in Florida, Texas, the Panhandle, because they’re all outside most of the year and he’s not,” his father said. “We’ve helped him with that work regime, and he loves it.”
While maintaining honors marks in the classroom, Bellinger works out seven days a week, either at the Northeast Baseball indoor facility in Hudson, at the Skills of Strength gym in Chelmsford, or on a field to supplement the work he does with St. Sebastian’s.
Because he’s chasing a goal, he never gets tired of it. He has put in the time to go from really good to exceptional, and now he wants to see where he can go from here.
Newton North pitchers try out for each game
Newton North softball coach Lauren Baugher admits the routine is a little out of the ordinary.
Before every game she has both of her pitchers — sophomore Liv Sloane and freshman Gabby Vachon — warm up as though they will start. After watching them throw and meeting with her catchers, Baugher decides which pitcher is the best option on that particular day and chooses a starter.
It’s a system that has worked out well. The Tigers were 7-1 — including five wins in a row — last week, and her underclassmen in the pitching circle have helped lead the way. Sloane has a 1.25 ERA through 25 innings, while Vachon has a 1.40 ERA through 15 innings this season.
“It’s a great option to have,” Baugher said. “I have two really good pitchers that I can actually rely on. It is a little unusual because in the past we’ve had upperclassmen with a little more experience, and you kind of give a nod to them as opposed to somebody who’s a freshman. But now, since they’re both young, they both offer something different and it’s great. I have two people I can go to.”
Sloane normally has slightly more velocity, while Vachon’s pitches tend to move a little bit more. Their demeanor on the mound, though, is similar, according to their coach.
“They’re the same in terms of intensity and competitiveness,” she said. “They both want the ball.”
Kudos for Fredericks;
special visit for Wellesley
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional coach Kirk Fredericks has been named MIAA Baseball Coach of the Year. Fredericks led his team to a record of 18-5 last season, and he also proposed the new baseball playoff format for MIAA Division 1A teams; similar to the Super 8 format used by the MIAA in hockey, his system will begin a two-year pilot stint next spring. . . The Red Sox donated tickets so that Wellesley High’s baseball team could catch up with alumni Nate Freiman, a first baseman/DH for the Oakland Athletics, during their game Tuesday at Fenway Park.Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.