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JMU pitcher, Justin Showalter, pitches against Rider University during the second game of the day.

JMU senior pitcher Justin Showalter’s role has grown dramatically during his time as a Duke. After beginning his career in Harrisonburg as a little-used reliever, he’s now one of the best starting pitchers in the CAA.

Showalter has made significant improvements throughout his time at JMU. His freshman year wasn’t great — he had a high ERA and an opposing batting average close to 0.300. However, he’s become better since then; he threw the program’s first one-hitter since 2009 last season, which helped him nab the CAA Pitcher of the Week award.

“I’ve had to prepare myself physically to compete at this level,” Showalter said. “I’ve also had to develop my pitches and mechanics better so I can dominate here.”

On the mound, Showalter pitches to contact and primarily throws a two-seam fastball and a cutter, while also mixing in an occasional changeup and curveball. Head coach Marlin Ikenberry said that Showalter’s natural progression physically and mentally throughout high school, along with his determination, made him stand out in the recruiting process.

“Since he’s a local kid, we really got to watch his maturation process over time,” Ikenberry said. “Every time we got to see him he got better and better.”

Before coming to JMU, Showalter played at Turner Ashby High School in Bridgewater, Virginia. There, he earned several accolades, including the Conference Player of the Year and the State Player of the Year awards in 2017, when he helped lead Turner Ashby to the VHSL 3A Championship.

“If there’s any high school that’s going to prepare you for collegiate baseball, it’s Turner Ashby,” Showalter said. “They do a great job of taking the game very seriously and honoring the tradition of winning and excellence that has been built there. I think that prepared me to transition into a college career because I played at a higher level of baseball than other high schools.”

Showalter didn’t have a great freshman season. He appeared in nine games — all out of the bullpen — and had an ERA over 7. However, Showalter said that he learned valuable lessons from his struggles.

“I think the struggles are essential to growth,” Showalter said. “I think that’s where I made my biggest strides. I would come out of games and see what I did wrong and learn how to fix it and correct it, to just have a vigilance to come back every day and see how you can get better.”

Ikenberry said it’s difficult for freshmen to make the jump to collegiate baseball. He compared Showalter’s initial struggles to those that a rookie might go through in MLB.

“It’s very rare for a freshman to come in and have the numbers of a junior or senior,” Ikenberry said. “It’s just because they’re not used to being able to locate pitches and that they’re going up against better hitters.” 

He improved in 2019. He appeared in 10 games — starting nine — and dropped his ERA to 3.72. In addition, he broke double-digits in strikeouts for the first time when he struck out 11 against Lehigh.

Showalter again made significant strides before last season and had an incredible 2020. In addition to the one-hitter, he went 4-0 with an ERA under 1 in the shortened season. He had a streak of 24.2 innings without allowing an earned run, which was the longest streak in JMU history since 1995, and led the CAA in opposing batting average.

“It was an amazing feeling, to just feel so confident that I could go out there every day and trust my stuff and put it out there and be able to have success,” Showalter said. “It was a very exciting, surreal feeling to see everything coming together after three years of hard work.”

Showalter’s determination and hard work spread throughout the rest of the team. Junior catcher/utility Michael Morgan said that when Showalter pitches, everyone’s paying attention and that it keeps the team motivated.

“When he’s on the mound, everyone’s a little more locked in than usual,” Morgan said. “I think the stuff he’s got on the mound people want to see.”

Over the summer, Showalter pitched for the Bridgewater Reds in the Rockingham County Baseball League. He appeared in three games — two starts — and struck out 14 batters in 14 innings, with an ERA of 2.57. He failed to pick up a victory and was handed one loss. 

“RCBL was awesome; it was exciting to have the chance to play ball again,” Showalter said. “It was a good opportunity to continue what I was doing and keep working and have a chance to keep trying to get better.”

Showalter said that he wants to capitalize on his great junior season and continue to improve. He added that he hopes to take JMU all the way to the College World Series — where the Dukes haven’t been since 1983.

“Our team goal, as always, is to win a CAA Championship, but we’ve extended that even further because of how good we think our team looks,” Showalter said. “We’re trying to get to Omaha and do something that hasn’t been done at JMU in a long time.”

Contact Joshua Gingrich at gingrihj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more baseball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.