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At Dawson Classic, pitcher follows father's path

Son of former big leaguer, Southern's Freeman eyes bounceback in '18
Special to MLB.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Former MLB relief pitcher Marvin Freeman didn't just come here to celebrate the significance of the Andre Dawson Classic, a baseball tournament featuring historically black colleges and universities. He came to see his son, Justin, a senior pitcher for Southern University.

Justin Freeman is attempting to become a reliable starter for the Jaguars after spending time primarily as a reliever in his first three seasons. In 2017, he struggled with an elbow injury that limited him to eight appearances and an 8.56 ERA with six strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.

NEW ORLEANS -- Former MLB relief pitcher Marvin Freeman didn't just come here to celebrate the significance of the Andre Dawson Classic, a baseball tournament featuring historically black colleges and universities. He came to see his son, Justin, a senior pitcher for Southern University.

Justin Freeman is attempting to become a reliable starter for the Jaguars after spending time primarily as a reliever in his first three seasons. In 2017, he struggled with an elbow injury that limited him to eight appearances and an 8.56 ERA with six strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.

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Justin said it's a good feeling to know that he is being relied on to contribute, and he hopes to satisfy the expectations of the coaching staff and his teammates.

Expectations that come with being the son of a former Major League pitcher is something Justin said he struggled with in his youth, but as he matured, he has felt better equipped to handle it. One of the things that has helped him is words from his father, who spent 12 years in the Majors and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 1994 after posting 10 wins and a 2.80 ERA for the Colorado Rockies.

Marvin said he tells his son to embrace the family name, make it his own and become his own player.

"It's hard on him," said Marvin, a graduate of Jackson State, a historically black college in Jackson, Miss. "No matter whose son played Major League Baseball, he's going to have that shadow over his head and he's going to have the pressure of being what dad was, or better than dad, and it's hard to escape that."

For the upcoming season, Justin is putting his family name aside and focusing on helping Southern achieve its first winning season since 2012.

"I feel like any goal I set for myself is realistic and possible," Justin said. "If I work hard enough, I can achieve it."

First-year coach Kerrick Jackson hopes to use Justin as a midweek starter and a possible relief option in weekend series.

"He's come a long way since we've been here in the fall," Jackson said. "We've developed a breaking ball that he didn't have before. The change has become a swing-and-miss pitch for him. He's been working his tail off and doing the things we are asking him to do, so we are expecting some big things."

The eight-team, round-robin tournament is being played at University of New Orleans' Maestri Field and the New Orleans Major League Baseball Academy through Sunday. Formerly known as the Urban Invitational, the tournament is in its 11th season.

In Friday's season-opening doubleheader for Southern, the Jaguars dropped the first game to the University of Illinois at Chicago, 3-0, but rebounded with an 8-7 victory against rival Grambling in extra innings.

In the win, junior outfielder Ashanti Wheatley hit a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the 10th. Junior outfielder Javeyan Williams accounted for half of Southern's runs with an inside-the-park grand slam in the sixth inning.

The victory was the first career win for Jackson, who is tasked with replacing Roger Cador after he spent 33 seasons as the Southern head coach.

"When you follow somebody like coach Cador and you're coming into a new situation and everybody is wondering what kind of impact you'll have, when you get that first win knocked off, it allows you to breathe a sigh of relief and say you got that first one, now let's keep moving forward," Jackson said.

Brandon Adam is a contributor to MLB.com.