Undersized overachiever: Falcon keeps beating the odds

Joey DeNato had for years found spearfishing an intriguing sport, and on a lazy summer afternoon last year, he finally took the plunge.

He admits he's just starting to get the feel for his new hobby, noting that hitting moving targets with a pronged stick while swimming underwater is no easy task.

But if DeNato's success meeting challenges in baseball is any indication, then the local marine population has cause for concern.

At barely 5-foot-10 and weighing just 170 pounds, DeNato is an undersized overachiever who's never met an obstacle he couldn't overcome since making the varsity team at Torrey Pines as a freshman.

DeNato, a left-handed pitcher/outfielder, is having another stellar year. He's 3-1 with a 1.15 ERA and is batting .386 (17-for-44) with five homers and 12 RBI.

DeNato is a two-time league pitcher of the year (Torrey Pines was in the Palomar League his sophomore year and the Avocado League last year) and owns a 21-4 career mark. With five more victories, he'll be among the top 10 winningest pitchers in San Diego County history.

But despite consistently putting up eye-popping numbers against elite competition at Torrey Pines, he's barely drawn a nibble from major league scouts, something he and his coaches attribute to his lack of height.

DeNato, who's already signed with Indiana University, is eager to prove anyone who believes he doesn't fit a baseball prototype that they're underestimating him at their own peril.

"I've pretty much always been the smallest guy," DeNato said. "A lot of people have probably overlooked me because of my height and because I didn't throw hard, so I kind of use that to my advantage to try and make myself as good as I can be.

"Sometimes I think you perform better when you kind of play with a chip on your shoulder."

DeNato said he's had to work with what he has, relying on varying his speeds and location. He commands four primary pitches — a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. He developed a cut-fastball last season and said he's experimenting with a not-ready-for-primetime knuckleball. His fastball tops out at 89 mph but is sneaky-fast, thanks to a compact-yet-deceptive pitching motion that Torrey Pines coach Matt Chess said makes it tough for hitters to spot his release point.

He also boasts one of the most devastating pick-off moves you'll ever see at the high school level, Chess said, noting that DeNato has picked off at least 30 base runners over his career and hasn't allowed more than five stolen bases in that time.

"Most teams know about it," Chess said. "They don't even bother trying to get off the base very much."

DeNato established himself as a clutch pitcher as a freshman, initially making the team when an injury opened up a spot on the pitching staff. He was just 5-foot-6 and weighed 125 pounds at the time, and figured making the freshman team would in itself be a formidable challenge.

"The varsity players looked so much bigger, so much stronger and a lot more mature by the way they played the game," he said. "I couldn't imagine myself on the same field as them."



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