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Alumni Report: Josh Banks, Severna Park, baseball

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Josh Banks can throw five pitches: a fastball, a curve, a changeup, a split-fingered fastball and a cutter. That repertoire made him a star at Severna Park, got him a scholarship to Florida International and enticed the Toronto Blue Jays to draft him in the second round in 2003, when he was a junior.

He was shoveling snow this week like everyone else in Millersville, but Monday he will report to the Houston Astros' training camp in Kissimmee, Fla., where he will try to make the most of his latest and perhaps best chance to stick with a big league club.

"They aren't guaranteeing anything," said Banks, who spent the past two years in the San Diego Padres' organization before Houston signed him as a free agent in October. "But they called me the day I got my release from San Diego, and they kept calling. Everyone seemed pretty honest and up-front. They like me as a starter and wouldn't rule me out as a long reliever to help their bullpen.

"I know I have to pitch well. It all depends on if you pitch well, and then you let them make the decision."

Banks, 27, was born in Baltimore and grew up playing baseball. He said he liked playing every day, but by the time he was 12 he understood he wasn't a very good hitter. So he went to work learning to throw strikes. By age 15, he played for the Severna Park American Legion team coached by Jim McCandless, who would become Banks' high school coach his senior year.

"He played for me for three years on the American Legion summer team and his senior year in 2000," said McCandless, who is still the Falcons' coach. "He's one of the best pitchers to come out of Severna Park in many years. He's always had great command of the strike zone, he has a great work ethic and he always comes to work in great shape and ready to play."

McCandless notes that Banks hasn't had the success in the majors he had on every other level. Last year, he spent much of the season with San Diego's Triple-A team in Portland, Ore., where he went 7-7 in 26 games (17 starts) with a 3.46 ERA.

"If given the chance, I think he can make a major league roster," McCandless said. "But he's got to have a fast start and make the most of his opportunity coming up. He has accomplished a lot already, but he's probably running out of time. Hopefully, this time he'll take full advantage."

Banks, 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds, has been married to Lindsey, his high school sweetheart, for three years. They have a 5-month-old daughter, Lola Elizabeth, and plan to buy a house in Maryland next fall and settle in among old friends.

But before Banks retires here, he hopes to have a long major league career. He has pitched in just 26 big league games (18 starts), going 4-7 with a 5.38 ERA.

His favorite memory is of his first win in the majors, in May 2008, when he pitched the last six innings of an 18-inning game in San Diego; the Padres beat the Cincinnati Reds, 12-9, when Adrian Gonzalez hit a three-run, walk-off homer.

"It was awesome," Banks said. " Greg Maddux, Trevor Hoffman, Randy Wolf, a lot of the older pitchers were running around the clubhouse, pouring beer all over me. We weren't playing that well at the time, and the Reds weren't either, but that game had been so intense. It was just a great feeling to win it."

Banks learned about big wins in high school, where Severna Park always seemed to be bumping heads with Arundel. During Banks' junior year, he lost to the Wildcats, but his senior year, under McCandless, he faced Arundel three times and won all three.

"I learned a lot playing on my American Legion team," Banks said. "There were a lot of good guys who were seniors, and I learned how to carry myself. And from Coach McCandless I learned discipline and how to play the game as hard as you can every pitch. Everyone I've played for in the big leagues comments on that. I might not win, but I play and pitch as hard as I can every play, every pitch, and all that came from Coach McCandless."

While in the majors he has learned about game preparation, pitch selection and the mental game. "If you don't learn every year, you'll decline very fast," Banks said. He believes he is still improving. At age 27, he is mentally sharp, physically strong and sees his best years on the mound still ahead.

"Pitchers don't reach their peak until they're between the ages of 27 and 32," he said. "You learn how to physically pitch the ball as you're growing up and learning the game. But you're always getting smarter. Most pitchers are weird, but they're also pretty good thinkers.

"You learn what pitch to throw on certain counts. You learn who the first-pitch hackers are, the guys who always swing at the first pitch. If you know he's going to swing, you pitch him something besides a fastball. I have a split-fingered fastball I learned to throw as a junior in college. I throw it for strikes; I'm aggressive with it. But I've learned if I get ahead in the count, I can throw something else. It's part of getting smarter, and it makes the game easier."

It sounds like the splitter is his go-to pitch, but when asked what his favorite pitch is, Banks laughed.

"The one that gets them out," he said. "If my dreams come true, I'll be in Houston pitching [for a long time]. We'd be winning, and it would be awesome for me."

Alumni Report Each week, The Baltimore Sun will catch up with a former area high school sports figure. In the spotlight today is former Severna Park baseball player Josh Banks. To suggest former athletes or coaches to be considered for Alumni Report, please e-mail sports@baltsun.com.

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