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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2011

Clay's Castilleja makes up for lost time at plate

Surge jolts senior back after 2-year hiatus

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Clay's Jesse Castilleja helps power the Eagles to success. Clay's Jesse Castilleja helps power the Eagles to success.
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Jesse Castilleja had a two-year interruption in his baseball career, but the Clay High School senior has made up for lost time in his final two years with the Eagles.

This quest was evident on April 21 when Castilleja enjoyed a day at the plate that most players -- at any age -- only dream of.

Playing against Dearborn (Mich.) Divine Child at St. John's Jesuit, the Eagles' slugger went 4-for-4 with three home runs, a double and eight RBIs in a 15-4 Clay victory.

"I can't even explain how that felt," Castilleja said of the big outburst. "It was like the ball was moving in slow motion.

"It was ridiculous. I was just on. My confidence level was at an all-time high."

Two days later in a home doubleheader, Castilleja's hot streak continued with a pair of 2-for-4 efforts in Eagles wins over Lancaster and Anthony Wayne. One of those four hits was a two-run homer to center field against Lancaster.

"He's hitting the ball extremely well," said Clay coach Garry Isbell. "He's got a lot of confidence. He's staying back on the ball and taking balls right back up the middle.

"As a hitter, he battles. He doesn't strike out much. When he's at the plate I know the percentage is pretty high that good things are going to happen."

The three-game power surge saw Castilleja go 8-for-12 with four home runs and 11 RBIs, lifting his season batting average 137 percentage points to .368.

"I started out the season a little rusty," Castilleja said. "I wasn't hitting the ball as good. But I've been working on my swing a lot, making adjustments, and right now I've got it down.

"There's still a lot of room for improvement."

Through Clay's first 11 games Castilleja had driven in a team-high 18 runs for the 7-6 Eagles.

His contributions have not been limited to the plate, as he has pitched 21-⅓ innings and posted a 4-1 record, 28 strikeouts and a 2.31 earned run average.

"He's got four pitches that he can keep around the plate," Isbell said. "If you can get a high school pitcher to command one pitch very well and be able to throw another one out of the zone to keep hitters off balance, that's good. "But he's got a slider, a curveball, a changeup and a fastball that he can locate well at any point in the count, which is extremely valuable. I call pitches and it's a luxury calling them for him because he's around the plate with everything."

The pitcher-first baseman was a standout youth player on a Michigan-based travel team through the age of 14, when he said he already could throw ball 84 mph.

But Castilleja was denied a chance to play as a Clay freshman when, by his own admission, he failed to put in much effort in the classroom and became academically ineligible to participate.

Castilleja got his grades in order as a sophomore only to experience another difficult setback. He dislocated his right arm at the elbow while competing for the Clay wrestling team, and missed another full baseball season.

"In one way I don't regret it because I liked wrestling a lot," Castilleja said. "In another way it wasn't worth taking the risk of getting hurt for baseball."

Unfortunately for Castilleja, the injury was to his right throwing arm, and it required a healing process and subsequent rehabilitation that basically left him having to completely rebuild his throwing motion.

"That set me back a lot," Castilleja said. "I basically had to start from scratch. I had to rebuild my arm all over again.

"They popped it back into place and I just had to wait for it to heal on its own [with no surgery] before going to physical therapy."

He returned to the program last season as a junior and, despite not being fully recovered as a pitcher, batted .310 and earned first-team All-City League honors as a first baseman.

"It was really hard because I had no confidence in myself anymore," Castilleja said of his 2010 return. "I didn't think I could live up to what I was before.

"It was a long process. I had therapy and tried to build all the muscles back up. I'm just now starting to get back to where I was. I could throw about 84 [mph] at the time, and I'm just now back to that."

Castilleja said that although he has improved his academic standing, his grades have delayed his chances to earn a scholarship at a Division I college program. He will likely begin his next level of organized baseball at the junior college level, perhaps at Owens Community College.

Isbell said that Owens has expressed interest in Castilleja, as has Sinclair Community College in southern Ohio.

"I didn't do very good [academically] my freshman and sophomore years, so I'm paying for it now," Castilleja said.

"It would be nice to one day make the major-league level, but right now my main focus is just getting my college career going. I'll see how that goes and then just take it from there."

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com or 419-724-6461.



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