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Baseball Athlete of the Year: By improving mental game Peace led Serrano to D4 title

By Randy Curtis, 07/23/15, 8:15AM PDT


By Story by Matthew Peters
Photo by David Pardo
Daily Press Staff
Posted Jul. 18, 2015 at 12:01 AM
Updated Jul 18, 2015 at 9:15 PM

The days of stressing over one bad pitch were done. Over throwing while trying to make up for a missed spot was a thing of past.
R.J. Peace had found his zen.
Those sort of mistakes would eat Peace alive in the past, putting him on a sinking ship headed into the deep, dark depths of a black ocean called baseball anxiety.
“I had all these highs and I had really low lows,” Peace said. “Last year was the year I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was trying to prove to people that I was the pitcher I was.”
This year the mentality was “Go out there and just let my game talk,” he said.
The Serrano senior was already a very good pitcher heading into his final high school campaign. He was an All-Mojave River League First Team player last season and had secured a scholarship to Cal Poly. Yet Serrano coach Joe Knowlton stressed working on the mental aspects of the game when he had an exit meeting with Peace after his junior season.
Peace did just that.
With that clarity came a Mojave River League title, a CIF-Southern Section Division 4 title and a host of postseason awards including the 2015 Daily Press Baseball Athlete of the Year.
Peace finished the season with a 0.24 ERA with 97 strikeouts in 87 1-3 innings. He didn’t allow an earned run in 22 1-3 innings in the playoffs covering three starts and one relief appearance. Although he admits pitching is his strong suit, he also had his best season as a hitter, batting .352 with a .482 on-base percentage and a .477 slugging percentage while batting leadoff most of the year.
“He put up a season to remember that’s for sure,” Knowlton said. “During his senior year I think he really figured it out. That’s a credit to him that he was able to get to that point.”
Peace was selected by the Miami Marlins in the 13th round of the MLB Draft just days after Serrano won the third baseball title in school history in early June. He’s since signed with the team and is starting his pro career with the Gulf Coast League Marlins.
Peace remained calm despite having a lot riding on his senior season. He realized getting drafted was a real possibility when scouts started paying more attention while he was pitching for the SoCal Rays Scout Team during the fall. He also believed Serrano had a great team that was potentially capable of winning a title.
He gained a lot of confidence during that period. He broke his hand at the end of his junior season and took time to get stronger. When he returned to pitching his velocity had risen to 92 mph after sitting in the high 80s previously.
Serrano catcher Alex Spadafora got to watch Peace’s evolution first hand. Both players were four-year varsity members.
So Spadafora knew he could get away with some good-natured ribbing as the team was hanging out ahead of their quarterfinal game against Sonora.
“R.J. remember freshman year?” Spadafora asked Peace. “Don’t let that happen again on Tuesday.”
In that quarterfinal game freshman year Peace got the start against Woodcrest Christian, his first playoff appearance.
A start was about all he got.
Peace lasted just a third of inning, giving up six runs, all earned. The Diamondbacks lost 19-2.
There was nothing remotely close to a repeat. He pitched a complete game three-hitter with 11 strikeouts and no walks against Sonora for perhaps his finest performance of the season.
“Each year he just improved and improved,” Spadafora said. “This year I think what he improved the most on was not his pitching ability but just his mental approach. I think this year he realized mistakes can happen and not everyone can be perfect. Just learning to deal with those mistakes and move on is what made him successful.
“You could just tell by his emotions on the mound, whatever happened this year he was the same pitcher every pitch.”
There was no bigger moment for a potential meltdown than the top of the seventh against South Torrance in the Div. 4 championship game. The D’backs were up 1-0, three outs away from the title while South Torrance had the bottom of the order coming up to bat. Then suddenly the bases were loaded with no outs. South Torrance scored a run off an error as Serrano got a force at home but the throw to first was errant, allowing the Spartans to tie the game.
Peace admits that this would have been a crumble moment in years past
“I would have been all down on myself. I would have given up at that point,” Peace said.
This time he took control. He picked off the runner at first then struck out the batter for the final out of the inning. Serrano went on to score in the bottom of the inning after a double play call was overturned to take the title 2-1.
“A lot of pitchers might panic,” Knowlton said. “He took it by the reins and took it by his hands for the last two outs.”
Knowlton made a visit to the mound at one point in the inning but never considered taking his ace out, he said. Had the D’backs needed to go out for an eighth inning, Peace would have started the inning.
Now Peace is pitching for the GCL Marlins and performing well there. He currently has a 0.54 ERA in 16 2-3 innings. He had perhaps his best performance Friday against the GCL Mets, throwing four innings of shutout ball with four strikeouts and no walks.
“I’m getting there,” Peace said on the phone from Florida. “I’m getting better at it. I’m getting better than I was during the season. It will take a couple years.”
He said he’s working to get stronger and improve his velocity.
But the mental part of the game, that’s already there.