By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
CARY, NC – Playing for Team Canada was always something that Jared Mortensen wanted to do, but it never seemed like a real possibility until recently.
Not long ago, the 27-year-old right-hander was coaching high school players and lacking opportunities to play professionally, so a bid at defending a gold medal on home soil at the Pan Am Games in Ajax, Ont., starting this weekend wasn’t exactly at the forefront of his mind.
Now, Mortensen is with his home country’s Senior National Team, taking the mound for a squad he had only dreamed about being a part of. He made his debut with Baseball Canada on Tuesday against USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and went four innings, allowed one run, walked none and struck out two.
“It was pretty emotional actually,” Mortensen said. “I put the jersey on [Monday] morning as soon as I got up and it was a pretty surreal feeling to be a part of such a historic program and to step on the same field as some of these guys, like [former Blue Jay and indy baller Scott] Richmond.
“And then to see Larry Walker here today, my dad would be – well, my dad’s already freaking out as it is. He’s more excited than I am. It’s pretty incredible to just be a part of it.”
Mortensen followed up a successful collegiate career at Louisiana State University-Shreveport campus with the Pilots – where he led his squad to the NAIA World Series – with a coaching stint at C.E. Byrd High in the same city, before joining the independent ranks for his first shot at pro ball.
He spent three months with the Grand Prairie AirHogs in the American Association before the Tampa Bay Rays took an interest and added the then-25-year-old to the Charlotte Stone Crabs roster, where he was two years older than the average player in the Class-A Advanced Florida State League.
“Out of college I didn’t play,” the Abbotsford, BC native said. “I coached high school. Then I went into indy ball, which was pretty competitive with a lot of ex-big leaguers there.
“Then coming [to pro ball] the adjustment wasn’t necessarily that you have to do better, just that you had to be smarter in everything that you did, whether it was working out, running, throwing, everything. You don’t have to do too much, you just have to make sure you do it right.”
While affiliated baseball wasn’t a big adjustment for the hurler, moving from Charlotte to Double-A Montgomery the following season was a little bit more of an eye-opening experience for Mortensen.
“That was a tough one,” he said. “I started off doing pretty well but then as the hitters got into a groove they started to sit on pitches, understand our tendencies and stuff like that. It was kind of a bit of shell shock because those guys are almost big-league ready …
“When you throw against those guys they’ve seen it millions of times and if you make a mistake, they’ll punish you. Whereas in high-A Charlotte it was a little bit different. If you make a mistake, they might make a mistake too. You can get away with a lot more there. In Double-A you can’t.”
In his second go-round with the Biscuits this season, Mortensen appeared to figure it out, or at least make fewer mistakes. The Southern League All-Star posted a 3.43 ERA over 16 games and 81 1/3 innings with 22 walks and 70 strikeouts before leaving his squad to join Team Canada in Cary, NC for the Americas Baseball Festival as preparation for the Pan Am Games.
He was helped by a revamped off-season routine, coupling more professional experience with the fact that he had a baseball-specific facility to use all winter long. After tying the knot with his wife Laci – on the AirHogs field at Pritchett Park, where the two had met – he worked as a baseball instructor in Dallas, Texas at Triple Play, getting to stay around the sport on a daily basis.
“My first off-season I didn’t know what to expect,” Mortensen said. “I didn’t train as hard as I could have. I worked out a lot but conditioning was always secondary. We’re pitchers, we hate to run. This off-season I ran an indoor sports facility in Dallas. So I got to run, could throw every day, and we built our own gym in the back so we could do everything.”
Grateful for the opportunities he has received, Mortensen has learned a lot along the way. Taking the less-travelled route has given him a unique perspective and for as long as he can, he’s going to ride the wave he’s gotten himself on, looking forward to more.
“Nothing’s easy,” he said. “You’ll get out what you put into it. If you work as hard as everybody else does, you’ll get what everybody else gets. If you work as hard as you can, you’ll get what you deserve. That’s probably the biggest thing. Not everybody has to throw 97 to play in the big leagues … It’s not about how hard you throw or how hard you hit, but there are literally guys on the Rays team right now who willed themselves to the big leagues.
“If you work at it the way you know how to work at it, crazy stuff can happen. You never know what could actually happen. I went from being a high school coach to playing indy ball to Double-A with the Rays in a matter of 18 months. I completely changed everything. You never know what could happen or when it could happen. Just don’t take your foot off the gas.”