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Pitcher Mortensen overcomes long odds, signs with Tampa Bay Rays
The road Jared Mortensen has travelled in his baseball career has been littered with potholes and detours, and on multiple occasions, he very nearly gave up the sport altogether.
But today, the 25-year-old Abbotsford native is an honest-to-goodness Major League Baseball prospect, having parlayed a strong performance in the independent leagues into a seven-year contract from the Tampa Bay Rays.
"So much has happened in the last four months, it's been crazy," marveled Mortensen, a righthanded pitcher who was assigned last week to the Charlotte Stone Crabs, Tampa's high 'A' affiliate based in Port Charlotte, Fla.
"It's unbelievable. When I look at it from a different perspective, I'm three steps away from the big leagues."
Every step in his baseball career to this point, Mortensen has had people telling him he didn't have what it took to make it in pro ball.
He was a relative latecomer to pitching – he served predominantly as an outfielder during his days with the Abbotsford Cardinals of the B.C. Premier Baseball League.
But after joining the Lethbridge, Alta.-based Prairie Baseball Academy in 2008, Mortensen participated in a showcase for scouts one fateful day. During a drill which called for outfielders to throw to home plate, Mortensen's toss registered 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. His coaches quickly transitioned him to the mound, as it seemed to represent his best chance at advancing in the sport.
Mortensen's raw potential landed him a scholarship to Mount Olive College in North Carolina, but he threw just 19 innings in the spring of 2010, and his full-ride scholarship (worth $22,000 annually) was cut in half because the head coach didn't think he'd be playing a key role moving forward.
He ended up coming back north of the border to play for the Lethbridge Bulls in the Western Major Baseball League, a summer circuit for college players, and was spotted by a coach from Louisiana State University-Shreveport.
Mortensen learned to add control to his velocity during his two seasons in Shreveport, and was named his NAIA conference's pitcher of the year in 2012 after going 12-2 with 1.67 earned run average (ERA) and 139 strikeouts in 113.1 innings.
But it didn't seem to impress MLB teams much. At 5'11", was told he was too short to be drafted – taller pitchers are thought to have more upside in terms of fastball velocity, while he lacked that "projectability." And at age 24, he was getting a little old to be considered a prospect.
After another stint with the Lethbridge Bulls in the summer of 2012 failed to yield any pro opportunities, Mortensen – whose had used up all his collegiate eligibility – returned to Shreveport, enrolled back in school to work on his exercise science degree, and busied himself by serving as pitching coach for a local high school team.
But just when he thought his dream was dead, his former coach at LSU-Shreveport found him a spot with the Grand Prairie AirHogs, an independent league team based in Texas.
Mortensen struggled at first – his ERA was over 9.00 after his first four starts – but he slowly began to learn how to get pro hitters out. Justin Dowdy, a fellow pitcher on the AirHogs staff who had pitched in six MLB teams' minor-league systems over 13 pro seasons, served as his mentor.
"He basically taught me how to play chess with a baseball," Mortensen said.
"I didn't know the difference between a college hitter and a professional hitter. I was throwing low 90s, and I thought I could throw 92 or 93 past somebody. But if you leave a ball up in the pros, it gets hit, whereas in college it's pretty easy.
"Once I figured out you had to throw the ball down in the zone, then everything clicked. I had a streak of 45 innings where I gave up one run total."
Mortensen's stretch of dominance drew big-league interest – 11 different teams put in calls to the AirHogs' general manager. But it was the Rays who finally pulled the trigger.
Tampa Bay has rightfully gained a reputation as one of baseball's most innovative organizations, managing to stay competitive year in and year out despite payroll constraints by finding undervalued talent. And in Mortensen, they believe they've found a mature, underrated player who can rise quickly through the ranks.
Mortensen rewarded the Rays' faith in his first start with the Stone Crabs – taking on the Fort Myers Miracle, a Minnesota Twins affiliate, on Aug. 21, he pitched all seven innings and surrendered just two hits and zero runs.
"It's pretty surreal," enthused Mortensen, whose fastball regularly clocks in the range of 90-94 miles per hour. "I actually think about how many times I've considered saying, 'I don't want to play anymore,' or 'This is my last season.' There were a couple times where I felt I could walk away (from baseball) and be fine.
"I'm just excited that I didn't."
Back home in Abbotsford, Jared's parents Dennis and Karen are ecstatic that their son has finally broken through.
"He said to me, 'Mom, this is like being inside a movie,'" Karen said.
"He's always had to fight to work his way in through the back door. People always said, 'You're too short, you're too small.' They gave him every excuse in the book why he wasn't going to succeed. And then he would turn around and say, 'Yes I will,' and do it anyway."