Ljay Newsome, a 2015 Chopticon High School graduate who was born in La Plata, never thought he would find himself playing Triple-A baseball for the Seattle Mariners, just one step below the majors.
This year, Newsome, a right-handed pitcher, was bumped up from Single-A Advanced Modesto in the California League to pitch with Triple-A Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League after winning the Mariners’ 60 feet 6 inch award.
The award, according to MLB.com, is a competition that pitted every hurler in the minor league system against each other and a pitcher gets points for throwing first-pitch strikes and strikes in 1-ball, 1-strike counts.
Last season in the Cactus League with the Single-A Clinton LumberKings in Iowa, Newsome walked just 16 batters with 111 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings. He went 8-9 with a 4.10 ERA in 25 starts.
“Basically everyone in the organization gave a seed and it’s kind of like the basketball tournament, but with the 0-0 strikes and 1-1 counts,” he said. “Both of the those percentages are put together. I won the whole tournament.”
Newsome, a 26th-round pick by Seattle in the 2015 MLB draft, received a non-roster invite to spring training with the Mariners for 2018, then was assigned to Modesto in early April. He is 5-7 with Modesto this year with 94 strikeouts in 105 2/3 innings. Newsome’s latest start was a five-inning no-decision on July 23 versus Rancho Cucamonga.
The start with Takoma came on June 14 and Newsome pitched to a no-decision over five innings. He was assigned back to Modesto the next day.
“Basically I’m just throwing strikes and the process of winning pitch counts. It’s very hard and batters have plans,” he said. “If you make a mistake, it could get hit more often, or you could luck out. Up there it’s the same game.”
In his high school days, Newsome helped the Chopticon baseball team win the Class 3A state title in 2015.
“Ljay was one of the better players in the league,” Braves head baseball coach Ray Sapp said. “We had several great players. Our catcher also got drafted, to the Mets, Robbie Kidwell. He’s with their rookie league now. He went off to play college and then went on to play for their minor league team.”
Newsome was drafted to play minor league ball right out of high school. He picked up and moved all the way across the country, but for Newsome it was for the sport that he loves.
Newsome went from Chopticon to rookie league ball in Arizona, where he played for the Arizona Mariners. In 2016, he progressed to the Northwest League where he played for the Everett AquaSox at the Single-A level. And then to Class A Clinton in the Midwest League to play for the LumberKings last year.
“All the teams are west coast, except for the Clinton, Iowa Midwest team. But every team is west coast out here with the Mariners,” he said.
Sapp said Newsome would succeed by the time he graduated from Chopticon and headed off to play baseball full-time for his career.
“When he was younger, he would play shortstop and pitch,” Sapp said. “His junior year when I took over, the first thing I did was tell him the schedule, and he picked what day he would pitch and we didn’t vary from that. It was more important to save his arm than win a few ballgames.”
Not talking was a character trait that Newsome was known for by the time he graduated from high school, just as much as his pitching ability. But since joining the higher levels of the minor leagues, he has had to start talking more to further his career.
“Ljay was very quiet and never said a whole lot,” Sapp said. “I had to joke around with him a whole lot just to get him to talk. He’s a down-to-Earth good kid who knew he was good but never threw it in your face but he went out and did his job.”
Newsome has had to change his style to accommodate the higher level of play in Triple-A.
“When your in Triple-A, all these guys are ready for the big leagues and they got big league experience,” he said. “They’ve already made their debuts pitching against Emilio Bonifacio and Chris Herrmann, who is a big league catcher.”
Other Mariners players have taken him under their wing to help him adjust to the big leagues.
“In big league camp, Nick Vincent was talking to me and telling me how he came up through and kind of mastered his pitch,” Newsome said. “He got through with the cutter, and basically that’s how he made his money. I was picking their minds about his routine, observing and talking to him. It’s just how they go about their business, they have their routine developed and a plan every week.”
Newsome’s pitching coach has also been helpful in helping him to settle into his new role with Tacoma.
“Pat Listach is an awesome guy. He told me to stay true to myself and I’ll do just fine,” Newsome said.
Newsome just keeps his mind focused on the game and striking out the batters he is up against on the mound.
“The difference is everyone up there has plans, in the lower levels everyone is trying to hit their way up. Up there they get someone on base and they’re playing small ball. That’s what I saw,” he said.
Newsome looks up to Derek Jeter, the retired New York Yankees shortstop who is now part owner of the Miami Marlins.
Newsome’s love of baseball is what keeps him striving to become a better pitcher and one day join the major leagues. No one is prouder of Newsome’s progress every year since he graduated from high school than Sapp.
“Nothing would shock me with Ljay. I’m hoping one day that I see him in a Major League uniform,” Sapp said.