Eighteen strikeouts blurred together for fans watching South Granville junior right-handed pitcher Justin Bullock dominate a seven-inning high school baseball game.
But seven distinct “Ks” – one for every inning – stood out to Bullock, who whiffed 18 in his 3-0 three-hit, complete-game victory over Northwood last week in the Bobby Murray Invitational championship game.
“When you can run off the mound after you strike out last batter of the inning, you feel on top of the world,” Bullock said. “You know you did your job. I’m helping my team with my pitching and my team is helping me with its hitting and defense.”
Bullock, who committed to N.C. State two summers ago shortly after he played for USA Baseball’s Under-15 team, is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior with a 93-mph fastball. He’s dominating this year with an improved repertoire of four pitches: two-seam and four-seam fastballs with movement, a curveball and a nasty change-up that dips low and away against right-handed batters.
He is off to a 7-0 start this season with a 0.21 ERA through the Vikings’ first 12 games. He is averaging 2.2 Ks per inning (74 in 33). In his career-high 18-K performance, he had three 1-2-3 strikeout innings in the third, fifth and seventh. He didn’t walk anyone and has walked only four in 30 innings, although he did hit two Northwood batters. One was from a hitter leaning in on an inside pitch and another on a fastball that got away from him.
“Every game I go out to pitch, I have the attitude this is my game,” Bullock said. “Good hitters will hit my mistakes and some will get hits even when I don’t make mistakes. But my mental attitude is to strike you out.”
It might seem like he’s burst upon the scene, but Bullock helped South Granville win last year’s N.C. High School Association 2A state title. The difference is he’s no longer Nuke Laloosh, baseball’s timeless “Bull Durham” movie character who only wanted to throw heat and lacked the maturity to care for his body.
People told me I need to stick to pitching, but I want to have fun at the game. I know someday that decision (pitching only) will be made for me.
South Granville junior Justin Bullock
Bullock missed the first three weeks of last season with a bruised shoulder suffered while he played football in gym class. He and another student dove for a loose ball.
“I know I can’t do things like that anymore,” said Bullock, who was relieved not require surgery. “I have to be more mature.”
With that inner growth has been recognition to put in more training and hone his craft. He added 20 pounds with an emphasis on lower body strength.
“He was skinny as a rail, so we said let’s get in the weight room,” said South Granville head coach Curt Watkins. “He has more power through his legs. He’s also a smarter pitcher. He understands why he made a mistake on a pitch unlike before.”
‘He was special’
Watkins, who pitched at South Granville and Lenoir Community College, formerly had a baseball instruction business until he gave it up due to time demands upon being named his alma mater’s head coach.
“I knew from the first lesson when he was 10 he was special,” Watkins said. “He’s always had a natural throwing motion.”
More recently, Bullock has worked with Garner-based instructor Daniel Caldwell, a former Wake Forest-Rolesville High, N.C. State and Chicago Cubs organization pitcher whose father Mike Caldwell pitched 14 years in the Major Leagues.
Bullock said he has heard from scouts who believe he can increase his 93-mph speed with time.
Bullock also helps the Vikings at the plate. He bats third in the order with a .465 average, six home runs and 20 RBIs. Northwood intentionally walked him when he came up with a runner on second base in the third inning.
His ability to hit may be one reason he plays at N.C. State rather than signing a pro contract out of high school. He said N.C. State coach Elliott Avent has told him they recruited him as a pitcher, but he is open to allowing him to play the field.
“I still want to be all-around player,” Bullock said. “People told me I need to stick to pitching, but I want to have fun at the game. I know someday that decision (pitching only) will be made for me.”