Justin Dillon was 2-1 with a 1.96 earned run average with Vancouver in 2017.
2017 Vancouver Canadians righthander Justin Dillon is on the bump for the latest instalment of C’s Chat.
The 6-foot-3 hurler first drew the attention of scouts after a successful high school career at El Dorado High School in his hometown of Placerville, California. The 2012 season saw Dillon earn Sierra Valley Conference MVP honours by winning nine of 10 decisions with a 0.95 earned run average. He tossed nine complete games that included five shutouts and notched four saves. Dillon also could swing the bat by hitting .511 with nine home runs, 11 doubles and two triples.
The Colorado Rockies decided to select him in the 39th round of the 2012 draft. However, Dillon opted to attend Sacramento State.
“It was a bittersweet kind of thing. I had high expectations too. I guess it was more, it came across more for the money just because I was younger and it would take me away from college and all that. When we sat down to talk about a number, we didn’t really match up. It was one of those things that the older (I got), a couple of years after and reflecting on it, it was a pretty awesome experience.”
Dillon then compared his draft experiences with Colorado and Toronto, who took him in the 10th round of the 2017 draft.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know my name got called in the (2012) draft. I was outside working on a (construction) property and I came back in. I saw a text from my coach saying that, ‘Congratulations, you got drafted.’ And it was just one of those things. I was like ‘What? Are you serious?’ It was kind of one of those things. It felt amazing. After all that, I got some time to reflect. It was kind of like, ‘Wow!’ It was always a dream of mine just to get drafted and be able to play professional baseball and have it.
Then when it happened with the Blue Jays, I knew I was going no matter what. It meant even more to me because I was older and more mature. It was an amazing feeling to see my name get called. Then to get a call from the scout (Darold Brown) and start talking to him about when I was flying out. Just the excitement through all that.”
Dillon on pitching at Sacramento State
It was a long, hard road for Dillon between his draft experiences. His college career with the Sacramento State Hornets was delayed for a year because he had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He said going through and recovering from the surgery was a learning experience.
“It was definitely tough but it made me realize that there is so much more to pitching than just picking the ball up and throwing. Sitting out for a full year and then trying to come back and feeling like you’re not even close to being as sharp as you were. You can’t really spot up that well. Your velocity is there one day and it’s not there the next. It really made me try to be more present in the moment, try to learn more mentally and just be ready to go at any time. I’ve been on top of that, trying to look for weaknesses in hitters and just be a little bit more well-rounded.
It was hard. I just turned 19 and I was still at the point that I was a little immature. I just wanted to throw a fastball by every guy. Throw it when I got ahead and throw something off-speed in the dirt and let them swing. I think it helped my career the older I got.”
The surgery was just the first obstacle Dillon said he had to overcome.
“Honestly, it was a grind of just getting my body right. Everything was going great and then I had Tommy John surgery and it felt like every single time that I felt really good and I just back dominating, an injury would happen. It was like after Tommy John, I started feeling good again.
I remember my opening game against Auburn, I ended up throwing in the first inning, I pulled my abs and had to sit out a year because I pulled it like two different times during that year.
It was one of those things. It was just like trying to overcome adversity. We had big injuries to a couple of our pitchers or some hitters. It was always just trying to make the best with whatever you got.”
It was the better part of two years before Dillon felt he was all the way back from the surgery.
“It took probably about the end of that next year so I’d say 16-to-18 months I felt like I was myself. I was draft-eligible the year after that and I put a lot of pressure on myself. Physically I was there, like everything was there but I just put too much pressure on myself. It definitely had a negative effect on me. I think overall, it was probably about 16-to-18 months before I felt like I could spot up again, I could throw my stuff and feel confident in it.”
Justin Dillon did not allow a run over eight appearances in July by striking out nine batters over eight innings.
As for his stuff, Dillon says he has a four-pitch mix.
“It’s a four-seam fastball that cuts. I get around it just a hair so I would have a natural cut to it. And then I have a curveball that I flip in there. It’s not 12-6, more kind of like a slurve, and then a slider. And I’m still developing a changeup.
I kind of become more consistent with all four. It’s really just learning where my strengths are and living down in the zone. You get away in college and high school and even some rookie ball or something like that, throwing mid-thigh or not quite down at the knees. But the higher you go, you have to be able to pound down in the zone. That’s really where I’ve been working lately, just all four pitches down in the zone.”
Dillon really had his pitches working on February 23, 2017 when he threw a no-hitter for the Sacramento State hornets against Northern Kentucky.
“It was awesome. It actually took me pretty much all the way until the end of the year before it really hit. We had one of our starting pitchers go out so I felt like I never had really reflect on anything. Sometimes I was coming out of the pen or I was working on something else just trying to give our team always a chance to win. When I did get a chance to reflect on it and the feeling that I got that night was unbelievable.
You know, it’s funny is that I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff. I just felt like I executed a lot of pitches in great counts. It was incredible. I didn’t even know I had a no-hitter going. I know I had two outs, I threw a fastball up and in to a righty and it was a jam shot. For the first baseman, there was a little bobble and we ended having an error. I didn’t know if they had marked it as a hit or error so I just got up there, the next guy came up and I struck him out. The next thing I know, everyone just erupted.
It was one of those things in that I was so focused on the game in that present moment that I didn’t even realize if there was a hit or an error. I just tried to attack the next guy.”
Dillon said he didn’t notice whether he noticed his teammates were acting differently around him between innings during his no-hitter.
“Not really. We actually had this little guy. He’s about five years old. His name, we always called him ‘Rock’ and he had muscular dystrophy. He was always in the dugout and actually, he was climbing up on me at one point and trying to play catch with me in the dugout. I would talk to him a little bit.
I don’t really believe in the superstition and all that kind of stuff too much. I didn’t mind it at all. I didn’t really notice too much going on but I noticed him always being around me.”
Dillon on pitching in Vancouver
Justin Dillon struck out 28 batters in 23 innings and held Northwest League hitters to a .207 batting average.
Dillon began his professional career with Vancouver in 2017 as he made his debut in Everett June 26. His Nat Bailey Stadium debut did not go as planned when he took the loss in relief against the Eugene Emeralds June 30 but he would later get his revenge against the defending Northwest League champions. The 6-foot-3 righthander would then reel off seven scoreless appearances in a row, earning his first pro victory in Hillsboro August 4.
“It’s to represent a Hall of Famer. You’re sitting out there. He was in our shoes at one point. You just try to take it all in and just love the moment that you’re in and to be present with that. I mean, it’s hard. You sit there and start thinking about the future and you think about his career. But at the same time, you have to compete. You got to go and do everything that you can do to get that win for the C’s.
It was awesome. He was in our locker room. He’s just a down-to-earth guy. It was so great just to talk to him and have a little conversation with him and all the other teammates about it.”
As the season wore on, Dillon would be paired up with lefthander Zach Logue as tandem starters. Overall, Dillon felt the partnership was successful.
“It was different, that’s for sure. I mean, that was the first time that I’ve done that. However, Zach and I always came in in clean innings and it was kind of like even though he might be coming in the fourth or whatever or I might be coming in, it was clean so we acted as if it was our own start. But you kind of have to pay attention to what that other pitcher is doing and if he is having success, say inside on righties or whatever. You just kind of go off of that.
It was definitely different but it was good because (the way) Zach and I throw – our velocities are similar. We were actually catch partners so I knew what his ball did, he knew what my ball did. He has a good two-seam action where it sinks pretty good. It like since I had to cut (my fastball) – our balls both kind of travel the same direction even though I’m a righty and he’s a lefty. It was actually fun. We enjoyed it and we were always talking about it and what we saw so it actually made it kind of easy.”
Dillon said he really enjoyed pitching in front of 6,000 fans at Nat Bailey Stadium.
“They’re always behind us. It was just a great feeling walking out there and pitching in front of those fans because even in college, we pitched in front of some big crowds at LSU and (Texas) A&M and all that but it wasn’t quite like pitching in front of the fans at the C’s place. They were always in it. They’re yelling and screaming. I mean, they’re always behind us. It didn’t matter if we were down or if we’re up, it was one of those feelings that you just went out there and you knew everyone was behind you.”
Dillon on pitching in the 2017 Northwest League Playoffs
Justin Dillon is shown on the video scoreboard at Nat Bailey Stadium before starting Game 4 of the Northwest League final.
Dillon carried over his regular season success with the C’s into the playoffs. After celebrating his 24th birthday two days earlier, Dillon was on the mound for Game 2 of the North Division final against the Spokane Indians. He relieved Logue in the fifth inning and made sure a 2-0 lead stood up by allow just one run over three innings thanks to six strikeouts. Dillon was credited with the win as the C’s advanced to the league final against Eugene.
He said it was a case of just sticking with what made him successful.
“You walk in there and you just try to put it in the perspective that it’s a new day. Some days, you’ll have unreal stuff and hitters will hit you. Other days, I mean, it feels like nothing’s working but hitters are struggling against you.
You start eliminating all those negative thoughts, going ‘Oh, they killed us the other day or whatever.’ It’s a new day. You go out and you attack and you play to your strengths so that kind of what I did.
It was an awesome experience to go out there and just believe in your own stuff and know that you can go out there and compete against whoever.”
Justin Dillon finishes a pitch in Game 4 of the 2017 Northwest League final.
Dillon was back on the hill again in another clinching situation when he got the start in Game 4 of the Northwest League final against Eugene.
He ran into trouble early as a leadoff single by Zach Davis and a pair of one-out walks to Austin Filiere and Michael Cruz loaded the bases in the first inning. That led to a visit to the mound from pitching coach Jim Czajkowski.
“He was just kind of trying to give me a breather and really just get me to trust in my stuff. Not to think about the hitter. Just focus on my spots or the lanes I’m throwing. And then on top of that, give all the guys—they’re all around me—you can take a little quick glance at them and believe that they have my back as well. Just let it eat, throw to your spot and get a ground ball or, in the case I guess, strike out the next two guys and get out of the inning. Yeah, (the mound visit) was just to give me a little breather and to focus back up.”
The mound visit worked as Dillon struck out five batters in a row and seven out of eight to end his three-inning outing. He racked up 13 strikeouts over his six innings in the post-season. He pointed to one big reason he was able to pile up the K’s.
“It was just getting ahead. I mean, the biggest key is to get ahead because when you’re ahead, obviously the pitcher’s always in control of the dish and the hitters are looking for specific areas or specific pitches that they want. It’s like when you’re ahead, you start eliminating and they have to start expanding the zone.
It was getting ahead and then on top of that, not being afraid to go inside them and buzz them to get them off the plate or spot up inside because a lot of them are looking away, away, away. You get ahead and they’re looking for maybe a slider away and then you buzz them back inside and next thing they know, they’re walking off, they got frozen.
It was really that and the pitch sequencing. Starting off maybe a fastball away or flipping in a curveball and then get the hitter thinking and then work at a fast tempo.”
Dillon said he was ready to celebrate after seeing William Ouellette strike out the final batter to win the Northwest League championship.
“It was one of those things. We had confidence in Will when he went out there. We already grabbed some water cups and stuff like that. Zach Logue, myself, Colton Laws, we actually already had planned that we’re going to be dumping some water on Cy (Jim Czajkowski). Right when that last strike was called, we ran up there and just splashed him with some water and then went out and started jumping around with all the guys and celebrating.
(I had) complete confidence in Will. We felt like we had it in the bag but you never do know but it was one of those things that you have that much confidence and you believe in each other. You feel like you can’t go wrong.”
Dillon said he was happy to receive his Northwest League championship ring last month.
“The suspense kind of starts killing you because you know you’re still waiting until spring training. And even in spring training, all the guys on that team are sitting there going, ‘Okay, when are we going to get it?’ And then finally, to sit down, open the box, look at it, see your own name on it and then you get to start reflecting on that whole season and how much fun it was.
We had a great coaching staff, great players. It was just a blast all around. Great stadium, the fans were awesome. That ring is going to hold a lot of memories.”
Justin Dillon recorded a WHIP of 0.91 with the C’s in 2017.
When asked to compare himself to a major leaguer, Dillon pointed to a recently retired San Francisco Giants great.
“I would have said Matt Cain. Just in (he’s) not overpowering with his velocity but I felt like I pitched a lot like Matt Cain. Higher arm slot but growing up, I was a Giants fan and so I always watched him. Just seeing how he kind of moved around his stuff. Our pitching coach at Sac State was Steve Holm and he actually was a catcher for the Giants and he caught Matt Cain. It was one of those things. There was a lot of communication about that so that’s why I started thinking that my pitching style was more like his.”
Dillon has begun his sophomore season in the pros with the Dunedin Blue Jays. His first appearance came on Opening Day in which he contributed 1-1/3 scoreless innings in Dunedin’s 5-4 victory on April 5. He was glad to see some action right away.
“It was good. Sitting there and the suspense of if I’m going in or if I wasn’t because I was in a reliever role. It got my heart racing a little bit, just kind of waiting because it’s like, of course I want to get in there. I wasn’t really nervous. However I did have to slow myself down because it was just I want to go, I want to attack, attack, attack. I almost felt like I was getting ahead of myself a little bit but once I got to breathe and just slow down a little bit, I felt good. It was great to get that first appearance out of the way and then move on and get ready for the next one.”
Dillon had a tough second outing by giving up three solo homers over four innings in Palm Beach in his first start April 9 but he rebounded with four innings of one-run ball on April 14 against St. Lucie.
My thanks to Justin Dillon for taking part in this episode of C’s Chat. I would also like to thank Daniel Venn, Media Relations Coordinator of the Dunedin Blue Jays, for arranging the interview. He is on Twitter @Galapagos Dan.