By: Dom Savino
In a young man’s life, celebrating a 20th birthday is typically a milestone worth pausing to savor. It marks the end of one’s teenage years, a landmark date to enjoy on an often-winding path towards adulthood.
But Christian James didn’t have any time for reflection when he turned “the big two-oh” on May 24.
His 20th birthday was only the start of a whirlwind tour of the Mets’ farm system that’s making its next stop on Coney Island.
James has been named the Opening Day starter for the Brooklyn Cyclones’ opener at Staten Island on Friday night, the latest laurel in a three-week stretch that has also seen the right-handed pitcher make his first career starts at the Double-A and Advanced-A levels.
“I was just sitting at my locker,” James said, “and [Cyclones pitching coach] Royce [Ring] came up to me. He said, ‘You’re the Opening Day starter. Congrats!’ I’m grateful for the honor and really excited. I can’t wait to go out there Friday and pitch in front of all those people.”
At 20 years and 22 days old, the Tarpon Springs, Florida native will be the third-youngest Opening Day starter in the Cyclones’ 18-year history.
Only 2012 Cyclone Gabriel Ynoa, who was 19 years and 23 days old, and 2013 Cyclone Robert Gsellman, who was 19 years and 334 days old, were younger when they began those seasons on the hill for Brooklyn. Now, both are third-year big-leaguers, Ynoa with the Orioles and Gsellman with the Mets.
“His quick rise shows that he has a bright future in our organization,” Ring said. “If he continues to do what he’s done in the past two seasons, then we can expect him to hopefully make an impact at the big-league level at some point.”
James’ busy three weeks began on May 25, just a day after he rang in his 20th birthday. A 14th-round draft pick of the Mets in 2016, the East Lake (FL) High School graduate was at the organization’s facilities in Port St. Lucie for extended spring training, where minor-leaguers destined for short-season teams like Brooklyn train before mid-June.
When he arrived at his locker that day, he found a note instructing him to stop by the coaches’ office.
“I walked in, the coaches all shook my hand, and said, ‘Congrats. You’re pitching in Double A in two days,’ James recalls. “They booked my flight within an hour, and pretty soon after I was in Binghamton.”
Sure enough, on May 27, he stood atop the hill at NYSEG Stadium for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies’ game against the Bowie Baysox. It was James’ first start above the Rookie level in his three-year professional career.
Working on a pitch count, he scattered three hits and a run over four innings, striking out four batters. That includes a pair of punchouts of Baysox third baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who MLB.com ranks as the No. 2 prospect in the Orioles’ farm system.
“I loved it. It was a great atmosphere,” James said. “I wasn’t really trying to think too much before I pitched because I didn’t want to get nervous, but my adrenaline was pumping all day long. By the time the game started, I was locked in and ready to go.”
He returned to extended spring training the next day, but not for long. Another Mets minor-league affiliate needed a spot starter, this time the Advanced-A St. Lucie Mets.
On June 2, six days after his Double-A debut, James made his first Advanced-A start, conceding only a hit and a run while striking out five over five innings against the Fort Myers Miracle.
On Friday, the just-turned-20-year-old will celebrate another milestone, taking the mound at Richmond County Bank Ballpark for the Brooklyn Cyclones in what will be his first Opening Day start as a professional baseball player.
But Christian James hasn’t been rattled by the busy schedule he’s kept since May 24. Just like he showed in Binghamton and St. Lucie, the fast-rising right-hander is poised beyond his years and ready to capitalize on another opportunity.
“He’s got a focus on the mound and a desire to be great every time out,” Ring said. “He doesn’t overthink things. He keeps everything simple, controls what he can control, and attacks the strike zone with all four of his pitches. When you do that and you pound the zone, you can have success in this game, and that’s why he’s our Opening Day starter.”