Isotopes’ Lawrence works on tuning up his rocket launcher

April 2, 2019

Justin Lawrence’s veins already were coursing with adrenaline when he took to the mound last week at Isotopes Park, so it wasn’t like he needed more of a boost.

As the 24-year-old right-hander prepared to close out the Albuquerque Isotopes’ 7-3 win over parent club Colorado Rockies in a March 25 exhibition game, the “ooohs” he heard after releasing his first pitch — a 100 mph fastball thrown from an almost sidearm angle — was all he needed to know he had the crowd’s attention.

“The adrenaline was already there, seeing the crowd as filled out as it was,” Lawrence said during the Isotopes’ media day on Monday. “That game might have been the most people I pitched in front of in my life. Then, I hear [the crowd], and I’m like, ‘I might have got it up there that pitch.’ It was definitely cool to experience that with the guys.”

What’s cooler for Lawrence, and the Albuquerque Isotopes by proxy, is that he is finally harnessing the tools that made him such an appealing prospect when the Rockies drafted him in the 12th round out of Daytona (Fla.) State College in 2015. After struggling through the first year-and-a-half of his minor league career, Lawrence finally found the combination of power and control to make him an extremely effective pitcher.

Lawrence had an 8.39 ERA in 22 appearances in 2015, as he pitched with the Boise Hawks and the Grand Junction Rockies. The struggles continued into the first half of the 2016 season, as he had with a 7.18 ERA with the Class-A Asheville Tourists before he went back to Boise and posted a 2.20 ERA over 28 innings in 22 games with 40 strikeouts and eight saves.

Since then, Lawrence recorded a 2.42 ERA with 17 saves over the past two seasons in stops at Asheville and the Lancaster Jets. That performance propelled him into the Arizona Fall League, where he allowed five runs (four earned) over 102/3 innings with three saves over 10 appearances. Take away his first and last outing, and Lawrence allowed just one run over 82/3 innings.

Thanks to his work with former big league reliever Steve Reed — himself a sidearm pitcher — helped refine his mechanics and develop better consistency. Lawrence’s walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) covered close to 2.00 for the first season and a half, but dropped to 1.11 since then.

“Location is going to be key, and it’s just learning,” Lawrence said. “I already have an edge with being a sidearm guy. Hitters are uncomfortable. They don’t want to face me, they don’t want to break their bat or get jammed. So I already have that edge.”

Also what hasn’t dropped: the fear factor. Isotopes infielder Brendan Rodgers admits facing Lawrence in batting practice can be a bit intimidating.

“That’s not a guy I like stepping into the [batter’s] box against when he’s throwing,” Rodgers said. “When we were at the [Los Angeles] Dodgers’ place, he came in the ninth and hit 101. Me and everyone on the bench were like, ‘Holy moly!’ He is going to be special.”

As for Lawrence’s first appearance with the Isotopes, he allowed a meaningless hit and recorded a strikeout and a groundout to end the game. While it’s not set in stone that Lawrence will be the one walking out of the bullpen in the ninth inning, he is prepared for whatever role he has to accept.

“It’s just the fact of getting in there and getting the job done for the team,” Lawrence said. “There doesn’t need to be a name on it or a title for it. The expectations is, ‘There is a game today, and I can pitch.’ I need to be ready for whenever my name gets called.”

The best thing Lawrence can hear this season are more “oohs” from the crowd.