PHOENIX -- Playing in a big league ballpark can be a bit unnerving for young prospects not used to the larger stage. Perhaps even playing in the Arizona Fall League and the higher level of competition can create some butterflies.
For Marlins left-hander Justin Fall, he feels really comfortable. A product of Arizona State taken by Miami in the 17th round of the 2021 Draft, his success or failure on the mound for the Mesa Solar Sox this fall will not be hinged on his nerves.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle a little bit,” Fall said. “This was like a home game.”
He certainly pitched like he was at home in the first game of the AFL’s tripleheader at Chase Field on Saturday. The 6-foot-6 southpaw went five scoreless innings as Mesa played to a 1-1 tie with the Glendale Desert Dogs. Fall gave up just three hits and two walks while striking out four, throwing 41 of his 65 pitches for strikes.
Glendale’s arms were matching him zero-for-zero, with Reds starter Sam Benschoter going three shutout frames and allowing just one hit -- and a string of relievers pitching shutout ball as well before both teams scored a run in the one extra inning played.
“We were talking in the dugout, having it be low-scoring, low amount of hits, it was fun to be a part of,” Fall said. “I think we all needed to get settled in. Last week especially was a good hitter’s week. This week, I think the pitchers have seen some more success. I saw some for me today, so it was good.”
It certainly was a far cry from his first AFL start. A week ago against Peoria, Fall gave up seven runs on nine hits over three innings. He spent some time ironing out some issues with his delivery, being able to work with Marlins pitching coach Jason Erickson, who is serving as Mesa’s pitching coach this fall.
“I was really able to work on this week a lot of things mechanically, lower half, being in sync a little bit,” Fall said. “It was a month layover from the end of our season to here. I was working out some kinks, but I felt really good today, way more in sync and everything was playing up.”
Three of Fall’s four strikeouts came off his slider, which has been his best secondary pitch since his days with the Sun Devils. But Fall isn’t the same pitcher he was then, using both a four- and two-seamer to give hitters a different look while folding in a pair of secondary offerings.
“I was definitely trying to mix it up a little bit better,” Fall said. “I got in counts where I wasn’t really able to put guys away last week. I was burying breaking balls, throwing breaking balls for strikes early in counts, changeups early and late and changing eye levels with the heater was big for me. Overall, I pitched to my strengths and the guys behind me helped out a lot, too.”
The biggest step forward in Fall’s evolution has been that changeup, which was a big question around him as the 2021 Draft approached.
“This year, making every scheduled start, that was a big thing for me all year, throwing that pitch, repping it out, playing better catch with it,” Fall said. “Thanks to our pitching director Scott [Aldred], our assistant pitching director Tommy [Phelps] and we had Jason Erickson here really helping me out. It’s a big pitch for me. I think it’ll help me as I climb the ranks.”
While Fall was around 90-91 mph with his fastball on Saturday, he does think that could tick back up closer to his college days, when he would touch 96 mph. Even if he doesn’t, he thinks he’s showing that he can be effective even without the velocity, while understanding he’s still figuring things out.
“I think with me sinking the ball, changing eye levels, working both sides of the plate, having pitches go to different sides of the plate, it’s a different way to pitch than nowadays when you see guys blowing 100,” Fall said. “I think I can get there, I was there once upon a time, but there are different ways to pitch for sure and I feel like I showcased that today.
“I don’t think I was a finished product coming out of ASU. I think there were a lot of things I could still tap into and I think I’m showing them now. Continuing to develop every day is a big emphasis now and I don’t think I’m anywhere near my ceiling. I’m excited to keep progressing day by day and see where it takes me.”