When JP Sears takes the mound at Joe Riley Park, it feels like home -- in more ways than one. As a member of the Charleston RiverDogs, The Joe is where he currently hangs his cap and uniform. But for the South Carolina native, the 6,000-seat stadium nestled in the Lowcountry marshes along the Ashley River is even more familiar.
Sears' special connection to this specific diamond dates back to a time before he joined the Yankees' organization. It was March 24, 2017, just a couple months before the southpaw would become Seattle's 11th-round pick in the MLB draft. Sears was a junior majoring in business administration at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, which shares the RiverDogs' stadium in Charleston. He had earned a reputation as a workhorse and an ace. And he was about to put one more feather in his cap.
Sears took the mound that day and shut out the Virginia Military Institute, 3-0. With 20 strikeouts, he tied a Citadel record (almost exactly a year to the day after nearly doing so with a 19-strikeout performance against VMI). It was the most K's in an NCAA Division I game in 2017, and Sears says it's the best memory he has of pitching, at The Joe or anywhere else.
But he's ready to change that. In 2018, Sears isn't dwelling on past glory. He's much more excited about what his future may hold -- and so are the Yankees.
During an offseason that most Yankees fans will remember for the arrivals of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Boone, there's nonetheless reason to note a low-key November trade. At least, that's what Sears hopes.
In a move that garnered far less press than acquiring the reigning National League MVP, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman sent righty Nick Rumbelow to Seattle for a couple of low-level pitching prospects -- right-hander Juan Then and Sears.
For Sears, it was bittersweet. Prior to signing with Seattle, the graduate of Wilson Hall High School in Sumter, South Carolina, had never been west of Arkansas -- where he would go on summer hunting and fishing trips with family and friends -- and he was cautiously optimistic about the new challenges that he would face on the West Coast.
"I'd made some good friends when I was with the Mariners and saw myself there," he says. But a trade to the Yankees meant a chance at coming home, and the opportunity to see -- and become -- so much more. "Now I see myself here, and I'm excited about it. I was excited about going to the Yankees, one of the best franchises in baseball and one of the best franchises in the world of sports. For me, to be a part of their franchise is awesome."
Sears' military background has helped him fit naturally into the Yankees' system. The late George Steinbrenner was famous for demanding that all members of the organization abide by a system of values and rules, and those tenets have endured. Schedules are to be maintained, uniforms are to be worn a certain way. And there are absolutely no beards. Sears was on board right away.
"Little things like that make a difference," the 22-year-old says. "Sticking to the rules that the Yankees have, it's good and it makes you better because it means you don't have to worry about some of the things other baseball players have to worry about. I get to learn from a really good staff here, and everything that can make you better as a person or a player, they're going to provide you with."
Becoming a better player is paramount, not only because the Yankees demand success, but also because Sears expects it. And there's something about the left-hander that makes you believe he's destined for even more.
Sears has an easy smile and a warm way about him -- he's open and supremely likable. But he is always in control on the mound -- working quickly and methodically, with a laser focus in his eyes. And although he insists that he has fun pitching, he works at a pace that suggests a separate message. "I just want to get it over with," he says, somewhat counter-intuitively. "It's not really nervousness, it's more just anxiety. If it was my decision, I would just wake up, eat some breakfast and then go down to the mound and get it out of the way. I love being out there."
What's not ambiguous is his output. Through the middle of June, Sears still hadn't earned his first win with the RiverDogs, but some eye-popping numbers loomed further down the stat line: A 2.57 ERA; allowing one walk or less in seven of his nine starts; 34 hits allowed in 49 innings; and a .190 batting average against.
Clearly something is working, so the wins will likely come. The Low-A RiverDogs' roster is, by nature, young -- five members of the regular starting lineup are 21 or younger -- so the players are all still learning. Their climbs are just starting. And while Sears can't be expected to do it all, he wants to. When you ask the pitcher about all the things he's doing right, Sears instead talks about what he still needs to work on, how he needs to improve. The southpaw has solid command of his fastball both from the wind-up and the stretch, but as with most pitchers in the low Minors, the breaking ball and the change-up are his main areas of focus.
"Really it's about having a certain intent when you're doing it," he says, not willing to base his improvement on mere repetition. "The intent is not about just making sure you get all of them in that day. The intent is more how you go about doing it. It's about throwing my change-up different distances and working on keeping my arm speed up, keeping my arm up and making every pitch look the same. So I'll throw the change-up from 180 feet, 150 feet. It's all about keeping the ball and how you throw the same. With pitching, it's a lot about making everything look the same to the hitters so you can fool them with whatever pitch is coming, and that turns into going deeper into games."
RiverDogs manager Julio Mosquera applauds Sears and the way he goes about his work, and believes that if he gets a handle on the off-speed pitches, his future will be bright.
"He cares about his job, and he goes about his business really well on the mound," Mosquera says. "He's got pretty good stuff, and he attacks hitters. He's got a high ceiling. He's still learning how to pitch, but he's done a good job with what he has, and I think he's only going to get better. He's really good, and he's going to keep progressing. He's got a pretty good chance to become a Major Leaguer because of the way he goes about his business.
"I think he's really got something surprising about him."
So Sears will keep working on making improvements and peeling back the layers of his potential. And for now, he gets to do it in a place he calls home.
After the Yankees assigned Sears to Charleston in March, he played his first two games with the RiverDogs on the road. It wasn't until April 26 that the lefty took the mound at The Joe for the first time in something other than Citadel colors.
"It was weird," Sears says, laughing. "I'd done it so many times before, but there were more people in the stands, and I was in a different uniform. But I look the same; I pitch the same. I haven't changed how I pitch all that much -- other than maybe my velocity -- and I'm getting better with certain things like my off-speed. But I get to see a lot of the same training staff and maintenance staff and people around the stadium. It's pretty cool."
Sears knows how fortunate he is that his family members -- who live in Sumter about an hour and 45 minutes away -- and friends -- many of whom are still at The Citadel or in the Charleston area -- are able to come watch him pitch nearly every home game. Unlike last year, when he was pitching for the Clinton LumberKings in Iowa and the Everett AquaSox in Washington, Sears has his support system all around him.
"It definitely means a lot to me to have family here, and it makes everything a lot easier as far as not having to worry about feeling like you're completely on your own," Sears says. "You always have someone supporting you, and that means a lot."
For Mosquera, there's no doubt that Sears' comfort shows up in his pitching line.
"It's like he's a hometown hero," Mosquera says. "This is like home twice for him. He's able to do more because he's comfortable with his surroundings, and I think that works to his advantage when he gets on the mound."
So what happens when the call comes that Sears is getting promoted? (The next logical step would be High-A Tampa.) Well, the pitcher is excited about that, too, because his main goal is to one day be pitching in Yankee Stadium. But with every rung on the ladder comes a new opportunity to explore, and new things to uncover. Sears may feel at home in Charleston -- he plans to spend all of his offseasons in the Holy City -- but he's intent on not making this his year-round home.
"Charleston is an easy place to be proud to be from, and it means a lot to me to be from here," Sears says. "But I've enjoyed just being able to say I've been different places. Being in three different leagues already has let me travel to many different places. Whether it's Oregon or Idaho or Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, anything like that, it's been good to go different places and find something there that's historical."
History has been kind to Sears so far. The future, though, is still up for grabs. And Sears is excited to uncover it all while making himself better every step of the way.
Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.