Lefthander James Scott enters his senior season at Hunterdon Central next month knowing very well what it feels like to pitch in a big game.
Scott, the No. 2 arm behind current Maryland freshman Kyle McCoy a year ago, was certainly a vital ingredient in the Red Devils 25-5 season that did not end until a loss on the final day of the NJSIAA tournament to Howell in the Group 4 championship game.
Along the way, Scott nailed down the win against Pope John in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex final, stifled then-No. 6 ranked Ridge in a regular season game, shut out Watchung Hills in a sectional tournament contest and battled gamely in a 2-1 victory over Livingston in the Group 4 semifinals.
That’s an awfully impressive one-season high school baseball resume for an underclassman on a perennial statewide power. Scott will be entrusted to front the 2023 Hunterdon Central rotation and a team that will need to fill a large number of holes created by 2022 graduations.
“I don’t think I have the ace role automatically,” said Scott, quickly revealing his humble side. “I think our rotation will be good.”
Scott showed his mettle in 2022 when he struck out 70 and walked 25 in 40 innings, while posting a 1.75 ERA on his way to a 6-2 record against some of the top competition in the state. That big high school season and a strong summer with the Diamond Jacks Super 17U team would land Scott a commitment to Division 2 Bloomsburg by late September.
“I went to a camp at Bloomsburg in early September,” said Scott, “and it went well. I faced seven or eight hitters.” His fastball was clocked at 87 that day, as it had been in that victory over Livingston, but Scott was still unsure at that point about how his college selection process would flesh out in the end.
He had some early Division 1 aspirations, evidenced by a visit to Bucknell, and was very much intrigued by two historical strong and attractive Division 3 schools in his home state, Rowan and Kean Universities, which he had also visited. Division 2 Charleston in West Virginia also had created some intrigue for Scott.
“I reached out to Bloomsburg about a month before I committed,” he said. “I sent videos and they invited me to the camp. The head coach (Mike Collins) called me when I was at a Perfect Game tournament the third week of September. It was a Friday.” Scott was a late addition to Bloomsburg’s 2023 recruitment plans and Collins told him he would let him know by Sunday if he had a spot for him on his 2023-’24 roster.
“He called me a couple hours later and offered me,” said Scott. “I took about a week to decide because I really liked Rowan and Kean. I can’t say which one I would have chosen because they were close.”
Scott will, instead, take his fastball, breaking ball and changeup to the north bank of the Susquehanna River where he plans to have his command fine-tuned and his complement of pitches polished so they are even more difficult for batters to handle.
The 5-10, 175-pound Scott has begun ramping up his winter pitching regime in preparation for his final spring at Hunterdon Central. “Right now I’m throwing at about 90 percent,” he said, and registering his heater at 84-86. But, perhaps more importantly, his breaking ball and changeup are gaining ground as well.
“My curveball is kind of progressing to a slider,” he said. “I like to throw it to lefties. It starts on the hip and finishes on the inside of the zone. It’s a pitch batters swing over.” Conversely, the changeup, which he says has improved a lot, is very effective against righty hitters. “I get a lot of swings and misses with it. The bottom drops out. I can also throw it for strikes.” Scott says he threw the changeup about 30 percent of the time over the summer as he worked to make it a lethal part of his repertoire. That represented a big uptick in frequency from his high school season.
“You try to develop stuff in the summer,” he said.
Scott, however, developed some issues with his back during the spring and it proved a bit of an annoyance during the summer. He eventually landed in physical therapy after a visit to Mid-Jersey Orthopaedic in the fall. “I think it was a mechanical thing,” he said. “After the high school season I was working on stretches but it didn’t get better. It was getting tough to throw. I got an injection and some physical therapy. I feel great now. It’s 100 percent.”
That’s good news to Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi, who is planning on giving the Red Devils’ Skyland Conference opponents a heavy dose of James Scott come April and May.
“James has been a quiet cornerstone in our rotation,” said Cuozzi. “He’s arguably thrown and won several of our biggest games over the last couple seasons, defeating some of the best teams in the state.”
As a junior, Scott stifled West Windsor South, 4-2, in the first round of the NJSIAA tournament. “He’s been an example of consistency for our pitchers during the last couple of seasons,” said Cuozzi. “I”m really excited to see him finish strong this season. Bloomsburg really got themselves a great pitcher with great character.”
Asked to evaluate his 2022 high school season, one that saw him allow just 10 earned runs on 18 hits in those 40 innings, Scott was candid in dissecting the good and not-so-good.
“I think I did well,” he said. “I hit a lot of kids (8). That was an issue. Maybe I could have been more efficient in at bats and not run up pitch counts. I walked a decent amount. I needed to attack more. I had more of a strikeout mentality. It would help to get outs earlier in counts.”
That’s a very honest assessment from a pitcher whose overall numbers were impressive.
Against Livingston, Scott allowed just two hits and one run over 4.2 innings but left after loading the bases in the fifth inning on an infield hit and two walks and forcing in the game’s first run with a hit-by-pitch. That also rang up his pitch count to 99 pitches. He would walk six batters in the tense affair in which Hunterdon Central rallied for two runs in the sixth to win, 2-1. Scott’s Diamond Jack teammate, Logan Mason, now playing for Scranton University, closed out Livingston for the win in relief.
While that performance may have highlighted Scott’s periodic battles with command and high pitch counts, he had several outings in which he was thorough as well as dominant.
In the 5-1 victory over Ridge on May 3, he permitted one run on four hits over six innings while striking out 10 and walking just one. He did hit two Pope John batters in the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex final but was mostly efficient in allowing three runs on three hits, striking out seven and walking one in four innings. And who wouldn’t take his effort against Watchung Hills in the sectional semifinals every time? Scott shut out the Warriors on one hit over six innings, striking out 10 and walking three.
Scott’s wealth of experience in the Diamond Jacks program dates back to his 10U season, eight years ago.
“I had coach Ben (Fonseca) on the little field,” said Scott. “He was my primary hitting coach at that point. He was such a great coach, very knowledgeable.” Fonseca, the former Director of Player Development for the Somerset Patriots, remembers well those early years mentoring Scott.
“James was a workhorse for us. He was easy to work with. We knew he’d always keep us in games. We hit it off pretty well and talked a lot of baseball. He had great movement on his ball at a young age. Young kids often have success just because they throw hard. James hit his spots. He wasn’t just a thrower. He was a pitcher.”
Travis Anderson, who coached Scott at the 15U level, never doubted the upward arc to the young lefty’s pitching career.
“I think I was his first coach when he switched to pitcher-only,” said Anderson, a former professional catcher. “He dove into it and embraced that role. He did a good job of finding out what it encompasses, taking the right steps forward. Every coach he’s had here has been a building block for him. He’s taken their direction and run with it.”
Anderson likes what he sees, too, in Scott’s arsenal.
“He can pitch off his changeup,” says Anderson. “Everyone gets caught up in velocity. It’s really important to trust your stuff and execute your pitch. James can do that. It comes as you pitch more frequently.”
Scott drew from Anderson’s wealth of knowledge and perspective as a catcher. “Coach Travis had a big impact on me throughout my journey and helped me grow to the player I am now,” said Scott. “I credit coach Travis with helping me grow and mature on and off the baseball field.”
Anderson calls it the developmental process at Diamond Nation. “We are about the development of the kid, the steady progression in getting better one step at a time,” he said.
Fonseca concurs, pointing out how a player like Scott, who began with the program as a 10 year-old who looked like everyone else, rose to impressive heights through hard work.
“James is a really good product for our facility,” said Fonseca. “He came in with a little talent, did very well, paid attention and benefited from being surrounded by some pretty top athletes ahead of him. He saw every year what they did and jumped on that wagon. He took advantage of what every coach offered at every level.”
Two other Diamond Jacks coaches Scott credits in his development are Evan DeLuca and Walt Cleary. DeLuca pitched in the Yankees minor league chain and Cleary, an outstanding college player, is the Diamond Jacks 14U-18U Coordinator.
Before Scott takes those first big steps as a college student and athlete at Bloomsburg University, he first has a very important next step to take and that’s winning some more big games this spring for Hunterdon Central.
Thank you to Sarah Scott Photography for the excellent photos.