WATERTOWN — Josh Lajoie, now wearing a light blue No. 18 Rapids jersey, leaned on the Watertown dugout railing as fellow Massachusetts native Mike Rounds recorded the final three outs of the Rapids’ 4-0 win over Newark on Sunday in the opener of a Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League doubleheader at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.
As Rounds made his way through the Pilots’ lineup, Lajoie and his teammates peppered him with potential nicknames:
It has been less than two weeks, but Lajoie’s transition from Taunton, Mass., high school kid, to Watertown collegiate baseball player has gone smoothly.
The move to the north country for the recently graduated high school senior and soon-to-be St. John’s University pitcher capped off an unforgettable June.
The month started with Lajoie graduating from Taunton High School and was followed a few weeks later by the Tigers winning the Division 1 state title, the first in school history.
Two weeks later and 350 miles away, Lajoie is still feeling the high.
“It’s still kind of setting in, it’s kind of crazy that it happened,” Lajoie said. “But it’s definitely a feeling I’ll remember forever.”
Lajoie started that championship game, a 5-3 win over Shrewsbury. I was an experience he deemed “the most fun I’ve ever had pitching.”
Even with all that was on the line, Lajoie said the excitement helped drown out the nerves.
“At first there were some nerves but then I settled in and it just felt like another game after that,” Lajoie said.
The immediate celebration was epic. Local police escorted the Taunton bus through the city as players leaned out the windows, screaming and cheering and enjoying the moment.
But for Lajoie, the celebration had to end early, he was heading to Watertown.
St. John’s pitching coach, George Brown, wants his players to get experience against college-level hitting before they make it to campus. Brown suggested the PGCBL and got Lajoie a spot on the Rapids.
In his first outing against Newark on June 28, less than a week after he pitched the Tigers to a state title, Lajoie debuted for the Rapids — a five-inning, two-hit performance that resulted in a 5-3 win.
The hitters he’ll face from now on are stronger, faster and bigger.
“The size of the guys and the age, it was very noticeable to me that these guys were a lot older than me and a lot more matured and grown than I am,” Lajoie said. “It was noticeable that they had a lot more experience playing at this level.”
Lajoie throws a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup and slider. The four-seamer and slider are his favorite pitches with the fastball topping out at 91 miles per hour that will blow away most high school players. But college hitters are more than used to it. So, playing with the Rapids, Lajoie not only needs to work on improving his pitches but also the strategy involved in throwing them.
“It’s more of when to use them and where to put them in certain situations,” Lajoie said. “I feel as though my pitches are developed pretty well. Obviously they can always get better, but right now the focus is spotting up and knowing when to use them in a sequence.”
Rapids coach Mike Wood believes the biggest shock for pitches new to facing college hitting is just how fast you can lose a batter.
“I think once you fall behind in counts to higher-level hitters, they’re going to make you pay for that,” Wood said. “I think he’s going to learn that a little bit, but he’ll piece it together and be just fine.”
Lajoie is the youngest player on the Rapids’ roster, though it’s not by much his older teammates still serve as mentors, some of his first at the college level.
Vinny DeRubeis, George Rosales and Tony Socci have been some of the bigger influences on Lajoie, showing him around the area.
For the summer, Lajoie is calling the dorms at Jefferson Community College home, but his actual home has made it a point to visit him. Lajoie’s parents made the six-hour trip from Taunton for the Rapids’ home games this past weekend.
“My parents are pretty proud of me,” Lajoie said. “They like to watch me play ball, they want what’s best for me so they know this is what I have to do, so they appreciate me doing this.”
Once the Rapids season wraps up, Lajoie will have a few more weeks of summer left before heading to Queens to begin his freshman year at St. John’s.
But in the meantime, he’ll be spending his summer nights pitching for the Rapids. Of course, he misses the graduation parties going on back in Taunton, but baseball is his future, and it’s a tradeoff he’s more than happy to make.
“It’s a little saddening to see your friends back home especially when I’m six hours from home,” Lajoie said. “But I’m doing what I want to do so there are sacrifices that need to be made in order to do what I want.”
James Krick’s grand slam in the third inning gave Watertown all the runs it needed to take the opener, breaking an eight-game skid at the Fairgrounds and posting its first win on home turf since June 12 against Adirondack.
Rounds dominated the Pilots’ lineup for seven innings, allowing only two hits and no runs.
“I just tried to pitch to contact and let my fielders get the outs,” Rounds said. “I tried to stay within myself, pound the zone and establish early.”
The Rapids did not fare as well in the nightcap. Newark won 2-1, thwarting a potential Watertown comeback in the sixth.
The Rapids (12-16) are seven games back of Geneva in the West Division. Newark is last in the West at 9-18.