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.”

DeNato, who prides himself for composure above all else, admits that keeping it together in his varsity debut in a nonleague game against Murrieta Valley was no easy task.

“I remember my glove was in front of my face that first pitch and it was shaking because I was so nervous,” he said.

DeNato pitched three solid innings in the Murrieta Valley game, allowing one run on four hits.

His breakthrough appearance came later that year in improbable fashion, when Chess made him a surprise starter against Poway in a Div. I semifinal.

DeNato didn’t disappoint, pitching a complete game in a 6-2 victory.

“I was hoping to get a few innings out of him, but he got through the (batting) order and it seemed he kept getting stronger,” Chess said.

“At that point, I knew we had something really special.”

But just as special as his ability is his character, Chess said, noting that DeNato is a star who doesn’t act like one.

DeNato is typically the last to leave practices, typically doing extra work to maintain the field and pitcher’s mound — even in advance of games the junior varsity plays on it.

“He’s just a wonderful teammate with a great sense of humor,” Chess said. “He doesn’t big league anybody.

“I’ve been doing this for 29 years, and he’s at the top of a very short list of kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”

For his part, DeNato said taking care of the field is a natural extension of the idea of treating others the way he’d want to be treated. “I treat the field the way I think it should be treated,” he says, noting that the extra work is a ritual he has done since his freshman year and something he hopes to pass on to the younger players.

“Hopefully I’ve taught some of the kids some things that they can use in the future,” he said.

Chess believes DeNato’s consistent track record of success portends well for his baseball future.

“I think he’ll be an impact college player pretty quickly,” Chess said. “Maybe that turns into an opportunity to get drafted out of college and maybe it doesn’t, but either way, I know he’s going to make the most out of the opportunity.

“He’s the hardest-working kid, and he’s absolutely fearless the way he plays the game. I don’t think I’ve ever run into a kid who’s as composed as he is playing a game as unnerving as baseball can be.”

DeNato acknowledged that it’s unlikely a major league team will draft him high enough to make forgoing a college scholarship a viable option. That’s just fine with DeNato, who believes the education and baseball development he’ll get at Indiana will benefit him whether or not he has a future in professional baseball.

“Getting drafted is one my goals, but it’s not my priority,” DeNato said.

“I would say that if I got drafted, that would definitely be a huge accomplishment, but right now, I’m focused on playing well in the moment. Hopefully playing well in the moment will lead to being drafted or performing as well as I can at Indiana next year.”

DeNato, who plans to major in business, believes the formula he has developed for success in baseball will benefit him in all future endeavors, from education to spearfishing.

“Basically, I think the most important thing I’ve learned out of this is that you’ve got to have the work ethic,” DeNato said. “If you put enough work into it, then you can accomplish anything.”