MOOSIC —Whether in his native country Australia or in college in Arizona or professionally, Josh Spence has always played in warm weather climates.
So when he got to PNC Field two weeks ago for the start of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders’ season, he was in 30-degree temperatures for the first time.
“It was a bit of a culture shock that’s for sure,” said Spence, a left-handed reliever for SWB. “But I’ve always been taught that the most important games are played in the worst weather. Especially in the postseason. So I might as well get used to it now and get that feeling and try to get better.”
Being in the States since he was 18, the 25-year-old still has a strong love for his hometown. The sport of baseball isn’t that popular in the Commonwealth as most Australian athletes pick up cricket, soccer, tennis or even football. But it’s starting to pick up popularity with the Winter League’s Australian Baseball League, which just finished its third season.
It just so happened that when Spence was younger he started playing those other sports as well. But when he picked up a bat for tee ball, he fell in love with baseball and stuck with it ever since.
When he came to America, he attended Central Arizona College and started his collegiate baseball career. From there, he played for Arizona State two years helping the Sun Devils reach the College World Series in the final year the event was held at Rosenblatt Stadium. A strong season also helped the left-hander get drafted by San Diego. He’s piled up 51 career Major League games for the Padres totaling 40 innings in 2011 and 2012 before being claimed by the Yankees this past offseason. It’s been success that warranted other teams’ interest. He has a 3.15 career ERA for San Diego during his time in the Majors and in his Major League debut against Atlanta, he sent all-stars Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones and Brian McCann down in order. With the Padres he was in the bullpen with stars like Heath Bell, Chad Qualls and Mike Adams.
Although he’s had success, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. And to remind himself of that, he keeps a jar of vegemite, an Australian spread, in his locker. But Spence his teammates are “too scared to try it.”
“I guess (I keep it because) it’s motivation that I’ve come this far and to keep working and keep giving it 100 percent and enjoy it,” Spence said.
If you’ve seen Spence at PNC Field during the first homestand you’ve notice that he throws sidearm with a motion that could be devastating to lefty hitters. But he didn’t throw that way until he got drafted and became a reliever. Not being a pitcher with overpowering stuff, he wanted to try to something different. So the lefty from down under is still learning about throwing from down under. There was even a game during the recent homestand when Spence was pitching against Pawtucket he threw sidearm on one pitch then overhand on the next.
“I think it was something I just really hadn’t showed but something that I’ve always done,” he said. “But right now I’m just trying to get outs and I’ll get them anyway I can.
“I got into pro ball and was prone to lefties so one inning I felt I had a little more deception from down there so I just stuck there. It’s still a learning curve for me still working hard on staying with myself and making a lot of pitches.”
He’s been tabbed as a left-handed specialist over the years with teams. It’s true Spence has had more success against lefties holding them to a .158 batting average in his Major League career. But he’s also had success against right-handed hitters too limiting them to a .224 average.
“I haven’t’ showed it so far this year but I’m confident I can get both righties and lefties out,” Spence said. “I can understand why I’d be pigeonholed as a lefty specialist, but I have a strong passion for the game. I’m really enjoying my time with the RailRiders, but it’s no secret that the ultimate goal is to be wearing pinstripes in Yankee Stadium and I’ll do whatever they ask me to do to hopefully get there.”