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Drawing an ace

The Baltimore Sun

T.J. Vernes knew that to make significant gains, he would first have to lose.

With C. Milton Wright needing a No. 1 starter after the graduation of All-Metro pitcher Nick Bisesi, Vernes worked hard during the summer on his conditioning, changed his eating habits and lost 25 pounds.

After pitching sparingly last year, Vernes has transformed himself into a dominant pitcher.

The senior is 4-0 this season with a 1.58 ERA. In 35 1/3 innings, he has struck out 44 and walked just seven.

"He's assumed the role of our ace," C. Milton Wright coach Tony Blackburn said. "He's our No. 1. When he takes the mound, we don't think there's anybody around that can beat us."

Vernes is a big reason the No. 13 Mustangs, Class 4A state finalists last season, are off to a 10-1 start. He showed why he has emerged as the team's top pitcher during two recent games.

The right-hander struck out seven and allowed four hits in an 8-1 rout of North Harford on April 13. Vernes came back four days later and shut down No. 7 Fallston, striking out nine and scattering six hits in seven innings. The Mustangs went on to pull out a 2-1 win in 11 innings.

Vernes, 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds, said the weight loss and the endless conditioning work he did gave him the confidence to become a strong pitcher.

"My goal is to win the rest of the games I pitch," Vernes said. "Every time I pitch, I have to be confident. I have to feel like I'm the best pitcher on the field, like no one can beat me. You have to have that confidence."

That confidence has spilled over from the mound to the greens, as well. In golf, Vernes went from being a practice player to winning the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference championship last fall before spending the winter preparing to play baseball.

Vernes uses a simple formula when it comes to pitching: Work fast and throw strikes. He can throw a fastball, curve and slider. Last year, Vernes' pitches usually topped out in the high 70s, but he's routinely in the mid-80s this year - another product of his improved conditioning.

"The biggest thing I've seen is his determination," said Vernes' teammate and younger brother, Daniel. "He hates giving up hits, he hates giving up runs. He keeps striking them out and is much more confident now."

T.J. Vernes' transformation actually began during last year's playoffs. He had made two relief appearances and two starts during the regular season before Blackburn called on him in the Class 4A North regional final against Blake. The Mustangs were trailing, 6-4, when Vernes entered in the third.

He allowed only one run in 4 1/3 innings of relief, as C. Milton Wright rallied for a 13-7 victory. Vernes got the win and finished 3-0 for the season.

But Vernes decided to take a look at himself when the season ended a few days later - and he didn't like what he saw. That's when he decided to hit the gym and begin lifting weights.

Assistant coach Joe Stetka said he knew that Vernes wanted to turn some heads this year, which he has done not only with his pitching but also with his positive attitude.

"He became a big leader on the team this year," Stetka said. "You can see it on the bus rides home, in pre-game. He's the kind of kid every coach dreams of having."

Vernes, who has played on travel teams since he was 9, has been accepted to Maryland, where he hopes to make the baseball team as a walk-on while studying to become a chemist or chemical engineer.

When he's not on the mound, Vernes is a utility player for the Mustangs. He plays first base when Mike Rapazzo pitches and also sees time at third base and right field. Vernes was batting .267 with one homer and 10 RBIs through the first 10 games.

Pitching is his forte, however. Vernes loves Blackburn's ritual of giving the starting pitcher the baseball on the morning of a game. Vernes carries the ball with him throughout the day, putting it on his desk in each class and thinking about the game.

"It motivates me and gets me focused from the beginning of the day," Vernes said. "I start focusing from the second I get the ball at 7:30 a.m. so that by the time the game comes around, I'm game-ready."

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