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August 4, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Q&A with Justin Erasmus

One of the more intriguing players Boston has plucked from overseas in recent years, Greenville reliever Justin Erasmus has been quietly successful since his 2009 Gulf Coast League debut. After posting a 2.05 ERA in 2009 and a 2.12 ERA last season in his second campaign in Ft. Myers, Erasmus finally earned himself a trip out of the GCL in June, getting the call to Low-A Greenville on the sixth. Since making his Drive debut, Erasmus, who was born in South Africa and grew up in Australia, has allowed just a pair of earned runs in 24.2 innings and posted a 0.00 ERA in July. He is striking out more than a batter per inning and has issued just 6 walks on the season. Erasmus took some time last week in Hagerstown to talk to me about his background, playing career, and the state of baseball Down Under.

Jon Meoli: You have one of the more interesting backgrounds in the organization. How does someone like you get into baseball in the first place?
Justin Erasmus: I was born in South Africa, and my dad, my grandpa—my whole family was pretty much involved. So when I was four, I started playing. My dad used to play international baseball for South Africa. It just kind of ran through the family. Then we moved to Australia when I was nine and it kept going. I found a local baseball team and went from there.

JM: What was it like being a baseball player in Australia? How different is it from someone that age playing baseball in America?
JE: We play lots of club teams, not like here where you go play high school and college. You play for a club team, and then there’s a state team that gets picked. You go to a national championship, and at the national championship, there’s lots of scouts. If you’re lucky enough to go to the Australian Academy, there are lots of scouts there as well. I was lucky enough to be seen by the Red Sox when I was 17 at the under-18 national championships.
So I finished my schooling and went to the Australian Academy, and the next year I was lucky enough to make the Australian Under-19 world championship team. I went over to Canada and played there, then came to spring training a year later in 2009.

JM: What’s life like at the Australian Academy? Is it pretty much like extended spring training is here?
JE: It’s pretty much like spring training. When I was there, we got really, really lucky: We stayed in a five-star resort. If you were still in school, you’d have to go in after every game and spend two hours on a subject, so they kept you doing schoolwork, but it was pretty much the same as spring training otherwise. It’s an eight-week process, six days on with every Sunday off. You play every day, work on team fundamentals every day. There’s about 70 kids there, so they split it up into two teams and just play baseball.

JM: Were you familiar with any of the other guys, like Boss [Moanaroa]?
JE: Boss and I played with each other for a while. He was in Syndey, so we played against each other at National Championships. We went to the Australian Academy together, and we also made the Under-19 team together. I played against Moko at national championships, but never with him.

JM: When it eventually became time for you to come over here, how helpful was it to have a familiar face in Boss?
JE: There were a couple of Australians who came here before. One of them, who I’m lucky enough to be very, very good friends with was James Albury. We roomed together in the Australian Baseball League. Mitch Dening, I played against him and heard a lot about him, but it’s just good to see familiar faces around and have someone else to talk to. It helps out a lot.

JM: You came over full time in 2009 and spent a couple of summers in Ft. Myers. Was there a big culture shock for you?
JE: I guess the biggest culture shock was playing every day. Back home, besides the academy, you play two or three games a week, and that’s if you play junior and senior baseball. Mainly, it’s just one game a week. I’d get to pitch one outing a week, go to training once a week, and the rest of the time, it was up to me to do what I had to do. Coming here, the biggest culture shock was playing every day, especially waking up at 6:30 in the morning in that heat, playing every day, throwing every day. That’s the biggest culture shock. Yes, it was hot every day, but we’re playing baseball every day. You can’t really complain.

JM: You had a couple of successful campaigns in the Gulf Coast League, prompting a “Free Justin Erasmus” campaign on our site dedicated to getting you out of there. Was that ever frustrating for you to be stuck down there?
JE: I mean, it wasn’t really frustrating. I just went out there, and I knew what my job was. It was to go and try to get guys out. Everything else is out of my control, so if I go out there and do my job, everything else will probably work out for me. But I wasn’t getting angry at the fact that things weren’t happening. It’s not my decision. Obviously, I was down there for a reason. Plus, we had a chance to win a ring, so I was happy enough just to keep pitching every day. That’s all I want to do. I just want to pitch, no matter what league I’m in or what team I’m on.

JM: Where did you think you were headed this season? Were you surprised when you were sent to Greenville?
JE: I had a good off-season, got stronger and everything, and when I came into Spring Training, I was throwing pretty well. Everything was good. They were pretty happy with my pitching, throughout both years, and they said I was fighting for a spot in Greenville, and if I didn’t make Greenville, to just keep working hard and I’d probably go to Lowell. I was happy with that. But I didn’t make the Greenville team and extended came around, I was throwing very well down there, and the next thing you know I got a phone call and I was heading up to Greenville.

JM: Your fastball was touching 90 yesterday. Is that added velocity a symptom of the off-season work?
JE: Yea, it was pretty surprising. Like I said, I had a good off-season. I did a lot of long-tossing with my good friend back home, came back and was kind of the same in spring training. Once extended started, my velocity started to pick up a little bit. I hit 92 for the first time, and after that, things started clicking. My mechanics were working fine, my arm was pretty strong from long-tossing a lot. My velocity is up between 90 and 92 now, and I’m happy with it. But I’m happier with throwing strikes and getting guys out. Velocity is going to come and go, so that’s what I’m worried about right now.

JM: What about your off-speed stuff? How has that come along this season?
JE: It’s been the same as the last two years, curveball and changeup. My curveball has been my go-to pitch, but my changeup has come a long way. I’ve got a lot of confidence in it and I’m throwing it a lot more. I’m starting to work on a slider/cutter right now, but I’m mainly focusing on just throwing strikes, getting guys out with the fastball, curve and change.

JM: Have there been any major adjustments mechanically for you? Have they tried to tinker with you at all?
JE: No, the Red Sox have been really good. There have been times when I’ve been flying open a little bit, and they make sure that I stay closed, but they haven’t really done much. I do whatever is working for me, whatever I’m comfortable with. If I open up too early or am rushing, they’ll sit me down and tell me to calm down, but they haven’t changed much, which is sweet.

JM: To bring it back to the home front for you, how did you follow baseball when you were in South Africa and Australia?
JE: When I was in Australia, when the baseball was on TV on Fox Sports or ESPN, it would be at 6 in the morning or 11 in the morning. So I was at school all the time, and I got lucky because I had school holidays around World Series time. But by the time Game 5 or 6 came around, I was back in school. There were replays on at 11 o’clock every night, so I’d watch those. But I loved it so much, I always tried to keep up with it. It’s so much easier over here. It’s everywhere.

JM: Do you think the Australian Baseball League is going to have a big impact on the game over there?
JE: It’s picked up a lot. This last offseason the Australian Baseball League started up and we had a lot of guys from Japan and America, all over the world pretty much. The competition was very good. It was very, very tough, and I think it’s going to pick up in a couple years. We had lots of fan support with us, so hopefully it can get really, really big like it used to be in 1998.

JM: What was different about 1998?
JE: That was the old Australian baseball league. All the games were televised, but I think there was a money issue, so ten years later, they started it up again and we’re trying to build back up. I just hope it goes well, because I got a lot of help from it. I know a couple hitters did as well.

JM: And there’s also events like the World Baseball Classic that can help that as well.
JE: Yea, in 2009 before I came over to spring training, I was lucky enough to play in the World Baseball Classic. That was just an experience of a lifetime. I pitched for South Africa and I got to start against Mexico. There were 30,000 people there, and the lineup, batters 1-8 were all major-league hitters. Jorge Cantu, Adrian Gonzalez, there were a lot of big-leaguers in there, and I was 19 years old. I just went in there and said “Alright, let’s see how it goes.” It was a great experience. [Ed’s Note: Erasmus went 3.0 innings that day, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits. Gonzalez hit a first-inning double and a two-out, two-run home run off Erasmus in the third inning.]

JM: Lastly, has your family had a chance to come out and see you yet?
JE: I came back from the WBC in Mexico and flew straight to Ft. Myers. There, I got to pitch the first game of spring training, and my dad got to see it. He was here for two weeks and got to see some of what we do in spring training. Unfortunately, they haven’t been out yet, but next year if I’m still with the Red Sox, they’re going to come out and see what I do every day.