ORONO, Maine — Justin Latta returned to campus last August ready to begin preparing for his senior season with the University of Maine baseball team.
The righthander, who has a history of shoulder problems — including surgery in 2004 — took the summer off to get rested and healthy.
The next time Latta threw in the bullpen, he feared his baseball career might be over.
“My arm did not feel very good,” said the 6-foot, 200-pounder from Lubbock, Texas. “I really wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep pitching.”
As fortune would have it, it was only the beginning of a new chapter in Latta’s career.
At the suggestion of pitching coach Aaron Izaryk, Latta began utilizing a sidearm/submarine delivery. The move helped the senior transform himself into the mainstay of the Black Bears’ bullpen.
Latta will be the late-inning, go-to guy this weekend when the Bears play a three-game America East series against Hartford at Mahaney Diamond.
“I don’t want to downplay anybody else, but he’s been our most valuable pitcher out of the bullpen,” Izaryk said. “He’s become not only reliable but a very effective relief pitcher.”
Latta has made a league-high 20 appearances and owns a 3-1 record and two saves with a 3.31 earned run average.
After pitching 37 innings during his first two seasons, he has worked 32 innings, giving up 27 hits and 12 runs with 32 strikeouts and 15 walks.
“The credit is due to Justin Latta working extremely hard and changing his whole delivery in order to become an effective pitcher,” Trimper said.
The way he felt in August, Latta never could have imagined such success was possible. He regained his competitive fire after a reassuring talk with his “grandpa,” Ed Faust.
“It’s fun, I like there being an opportunity for me to get into every game,” he said.
Last season, Latta entertained the thought of trying to throw sidearm. He had made such throws while in the outfield during practices and noticed he experienced no pain.
However, Latta thought proposing the switch at midseason would be a distraction.
The idea surfaced elsewhere last summer when Izaryk, the first-year coach of the Sanford Mainers of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, worked with Neil Holland, a successful sidearmer out of the University of Louisville.
“I could put him in to get an out and the kids couldn’t get a read on him,” Izaryk said of the righthander. He wondered whether Latta might be able to utilize the tactic.
When Izaryk pitched the idea to Latta, he wholeheartedly embraced the challenge — even though Izaryk admitted he could not teach the mechanics.
“He worked his tail off,” Izaryk said. “He has to do things that feel good to him. If he could throw strikes, that was the most important thing.”
The change required repetition and experimentation by Latta. He had to learn a new delivery and discover what he could and couldn’t throw when releasing the ball with his arm between his hip and his knee.
Essentially, Latta had to retrain himself how to pitch.
“It took a while. The whole fall I was doing it and I was everywhere [wild],” Latta said. “I could usually get around the [strike] zone.”
Early this season, Latta also hit a lot of batters. Lately, his control has been much better. Opponents are hitting only .233 against him.
“I figure something out every day,” Latta said.
Trimper said Latta, who once threw in the low 90s, now comes in with a fastball around 85 mph. He can throw four fastballs, each with unique movement, along with his “Frisbee” slider.
And the unorthodox delivery and release point seem to create problems for opposing batters. Izaryk compared it to that of former major leaguer Mike Myers, who was a lefthander.
“He has a lot of movement. It’s hard to square a ball up on him,” said Trimper, who said the soft-spoken Texan is built to be a relief pitcher.
“He’s got a good demeanor. He doesn’t let his emotions get the best of him,” he added.
Latta has had to work through occasional soreness in his back because of the mechanics of the delivery, but it hasn’t affected his pitching as had the sore shoulder.
Latta also has taken advantage of the opportunity to have a defined role as a short reliever, rather than bouncing around between being a spot starter or middle reliever.
“I like relieving. You don’t have the long warmups,” Latta said. “I like going out in the ’pen.”
Latta arrived at UMaine in 2007 after spending two seasons at Midland (Texas) College. He missed a year there after being cut on the right hand by a pair of scissors thrown by a friend.
Latta, who grew up with his mother [Kathy Faust] and grandfather, credits his grandpa with having the greatest impact on him.
“He wants me to do whatever it is that makes me happy,” Latta said. “I would say he’s a perfect kind of parent.”
Latta heard about UMaine from classmate Joe Mercurio who, along with Bears reliever Barry Keiffer, played for Glens Falls in the New York Collegiate Baseball League.
Ironically, Latta had family vacationing in New England that summer, so they made a recruiting visit for him.
In spite of an up-and-down playing career, he has enjoyed his experience in Orono.
Latta plans to graduate in May with a biology degree.