The Journeys of Junge

The following article on former Gwinnett Braves right-hander Eric Junge was to be published in the next edition of Tomahawk Talk, due out August 6.  Junge was released by the organization today, but I still wanted the article to see the light of  day.  Best wishes to Eric as he makes the next step of his baseball journey, wherever that may be.

The Journeys of Junge

By Dave Lezotte (July 25, 2012)

While Triple-A baseball is often regarded a place to see the next generation of star players, it’s even more known as a level for the experienced veteran. Each season, International League rosters are full of players who have tasted Major League success and experienced hardships along the way, only to find themselves with another chance to regain glory.

Nobody on the Gwinnett Braves roster personifies this better than Eric Junge. A 35-year-old right-hander hailing from New York, NY, Junge (pronounced “Young”) is in his 14th professional season. Originally drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 11th round of the 1999 amateur draft out of Bucknell University, Junge has been to just about all corners of the baseball universe. He’s pitched in seven different Major League organizations including time in the big-league spotlight with Philadelphia in 2002 and 2003. He’s also pitched in the independent Atlantic League as well as overseas in Venezuela, Japan and South Korea.

It’s been a long road for the first-year G-Brave, to say the least. Yet Junge is as determined to pitch now as he was 13 seasons ago.

“I’m going to continue going until my arm falls off or I can’t get a job,” expressed Junge. “What motivates me? I just want to pitch well, I just want to excel. It’s not financial, it’s not necessarily getting back to the big leagues, (…) but it’s just excellence. We play to be good, we play to have excellence and that’s what I strive for.”

Junge has attained excellence at numerous points in his career. In 2001 with Double-A Jacksonville, he became a 10-game winner for the first time in his career as he went 10-11. The next year, he went 12-6 with a 3.54 ERA in his first season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. By the end of 2002, he had made a Major League debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in just his fourth professional season.

Memories of his first big league call-up still immediately come to mind for Junge, even a decade later.

“I remember pitching against the Braves a lot when they had those good teams back in the early 2000’s. That was a thrill for me,” said Junge. “I got to pitch against (Tom) Glavine one time, and just being on the field with some of those marquee Braves teams was pretty cool.”

Junge made his Major League debut with the Phillies on September 11, 2002 against the Florida Marlins. The then-25-year-old earned his first career victory three days later on September 14 in a win against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His second and most recent MLB victory came over Glavine and the Braves on September 24, 2002, a game won by the Phillies, 5-3.

He pitched six more times in relief for Philadelphia in 2003, posting no record and a 3.52 ERA. Despite a promising 2-0 record and 2.21 ERA in two stints, Junge wasn’t called upon by the Phillies again and hasn’t been back to the Majors since.

“I didn’t expect it to be that hard to get back (to the Major Leagues), to get a second opportunity,” admits Junge. “But that’s the way things go.”

Since 2003, his journey has taken him just about everywhere imaginable. He pitched in the Phillies system again in 2004 before landing with the New York Mets organization a year later. In 2006, Junge pitched for Triple-A Portland of the San Diego Padres system. In 2007, he suited up for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre again, but this time as a New York Yankees farmhand. After a release from the Yankees, Junge caught on with the independent Bridgeport Bluefish for the duration of 2007.

Then, in 2008, he discovered he’d have to leave the United States to keep his dream alive. Junge spent the next two seasons playing in Asia, going 0-1 with a 6.97 ERA in 11 games with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s Pacific League in 2008 and 1-7 with a 7.04 ERA in 12 games with the Hanwha Eagles of the South Korean Professional Baseball League in 2009.

Aside from obvious adjustments in culture, Junge found himself challenged by a different style of play in both countries.

“In Japan and Korea, they sort of play tennis, if you will,” described Junge. “They try to return your serve, the hitters, that is, these slap-hitting guys. You have to adjust your game a little bit. I didn’t have much success in the Asian arena and I think a lot of guys (American players) don’t have success over there. It takes more than a few months, and they (the teams) don’t’ give you enough time to adjust to the game.”

In 2010, Junge returned to the United States and signed a minor league contract with the Los Angeles Angels. He was immediately assigned to Triple-A, where he went 5-3 with a 5.15 ERA in 14 games with the Salt Lake Bees in 2010 and 8-9 with a 5.12 ERA in 25 games in 2011. Simply getting back to affiliated baseball proved to be a victory in itself for Junge.

“I didn’t know if it was even going to happen (returning to affiliated baseball). I pitched my way back in,” said Junge.

It was in the Angels system that Junge learned a pitch that would ultimately increase his longevity.

“I developed a sinker over there with Erik Bennett, he was my pitching coach over there (Salt Lake). We worked on a sinker and that’s really helped me to prolong my career. As my velocity goes down, now I can sink the ball a little bit more and induce more contact.”

Armed with the sinker that helps him get more ground ball outs, Junge is still striving for excellence in his first season in the Atlanta Braves organization. He started off the year 3-1 with Gwinnett before scuffling in May and June. Recently, the right-hander has experienced resurgence, going 2-0 with a 2.86 ERA in four outings from June 30 to July 23.

“Just being aggressive,” answered Junge when asked the secret for his latest success. “(Being) aggressive early in the count with fastballs and using my cutter and slider to get guys off the fastball. When I was struggling, I think I was a little more slider-dominant, pitching backward and kind of looking for answers. There are no easy answers, you just go back to basics. Pound strikes with your fastball and get guys a little more uncomfortable in the box.”

As of July 25, Junge is tied for the team lead in both wins (6) and quality starts (8). While a call-up to Atlanta for his first Major League innings since 2003 is still likely a long shot for Gwinnett’s elder statesman, he remains content with his achievements.

“It was a special experience, and hopefully I can maybe get back (to the Major Leagues) one day,” said Junge. “If not, it’s fine, it’s all been fun. Nobody can take away the feeling of pride I have for my own career. I feel like I’ve exceeded my own expectations.”

-DL

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