Hulking Rock Hill baseball pitcher ready for Northwestern game, and the pro scouts
R.J. Petit is a teenager living in an enormous man's body.
He stands out from his Rock Hill High baseball teammates, whether he's ducking to enter a dugout, towering a head above any of them during the National Anthem lineup, or pounding a 90-mile per hour fastball into the catcher's mitt.
Several Major League Baseball scouts came to watch Petit's last start against Fort Mill, their radar guns raising up and down for each of the 6-foot-7, 250-pound senior's pitches like automated oil derricks.
Petit battled with himself for much of the Fort Mill game, in part because of a flimsy strike zone that undulated throughout the night. Frustration won several times, especially in the third inning after he walked a batter he'd put two strikes on. The umpiring and his own inability to mow down a batter at his mercy were annoying. But the scouts' presence also bumped around in his head. They're impossible for a pitcher to miss.
"They're right there with the gun," said Petit. "It's obviously nerve-wracking."
Petit, whose fastball hit 93 miles per hour during a Spring Break tournament, had gotten used to college scouts watching his games last year, but pro scouts bring a heightened level of anxiety. Petit knew an Atlanta Braves scout was coming to the Fort Mill game because he texted him a day in advance.
"I was anxious about it, a little stressed because I didn't want to do bad in front of him. But that's just part of what it is, I know it's gonna happen, it's not the last time it's gonna happen," said Petit. "I've just got to learn to stay calm and play my game."
'A legit prospect'
Rock Hill coach Dell Corley isn't surprised that Major League scouts are contacting him to find out when Petit starts next.
"He's a legit prospect," said Corley, a 30-year coaching veteran. "Anytime you get a guy that's hitting 90 on a consistent basis, they're gonna come check him out. And then of course his size, he's worked his tail off in the weight room and conditioning, he's bettered himself as an athlete."
Petit was a fluffy eighth grader on Rock Hill's C Team five years ago, plenty tall, but carrying around none of the muscle he does today. Corley guessed Petit had between 30 and 40 percent body fat then. Now, he is somewhere around 12 percent.
A single-minded focus on chiseling his body, caring for his arm and increasing his athleticism and mobility during the last year produced results.
Working with Conway, S.C.-based pitching coach Mike Williams instilled in Petit a serious concern for arm care, before and after pitching outings. Petit turned heads last on the showcase circuit last summer, then committed to Charleston Southern (he signed in February). With his college choice made, he dialed back his throwing during the fall and winter. If Petit is as big as a bear, well, he spent the winter hibernating amongst squat racks and dumbbells, starting four days out of every week at 6:45 a.m. in the Rock Hill High weight room.
"He had an insatiable appetite for success this fall and winter and it's no surprise to us," said Charleston Southern pitching coach George Schaefer.
Corley said Petit has "transformed his body," and the results are clear this spring: a fresh arm and improved stamina and strength combining to spike his velocity. Petit's fastball is seven to nine miles per hour faster than last year.
"What I've seen this year is consistently upper 80s, hitting 90," said Corley, "not seeing any drop in the sixth, seventh inning."
Know this about the hulking Bearcat: he is competitive, a quality that helped him conquer the weight room at the crack of dawn for the last six months. And he's driven to succeed. When he went to friends' houses to play video games last summer he always brought a prepared meal of grilled chicken, broccoli and brown rice, cooked up in huge batches at the start of each week and doled into separate containers for each meal.
"I just want to be the best, not only the best I can, but the best out there," he said. "If you beat me in a video game we're playing again, just so I can show you that I'm better than you.
"If I work harder than people I know I'll be able to do what I want to."
Still a kid's game
It's impossible to ignore Petit's imposing size when you meet him. He has a Clowney-like frame that conveniently shielded a reporter from the sun during an interview. And keeping enough chicken breasts, broccoli and brown rice in the house for R.J. and his 6-foot-2 younger brother, Nick, has proved difficult.
"The grocery bills have increased," said their mom, Donna Petit. "Much more than I'd ever imagined."
When R.J. talked about having to buy new clothes every year since the beginning of high school, he smiled. Braces on his teeth peek through, a reminder that he's still a kid, even if he doesn't look like one.
Petit has always been a late bloomer. He didn't lose his first tooth until he was 9 years old. So as quickly as his baseball stock has risen in the last few months, all agree going to college instead of turning pro would still be the best move.
Corley thinks Petit found the perfect spot in Charleston Southern. There, Petit will try to fortify the third pitch in his tool belt, a change-up, and otherwise continue the progress he's made in the last year.
"I think he'll be an even more serious pro-type pick in two to three years," Corley said.
A day after the Fort Mill outing, the game was still fresh on Petit's mind. He didn't pitch badly, allowing just five hits and two runs, while striking out seven. But he didn't dominate the game like he felt he should have. Knowing the MLB scouts were watching only chafed Petit's competitive nature more.
"I was nervous!" said Donna, who never misses her son's games. "As a parent, I'm, like, dumbfounded. You hope for it."
The whole family is still getting used to R.J.'s rocket-like rise. Receiving questionnaires in the mail from the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals was surreal. And the accompanying flood of thoughts about R.J.'s future makes it harder to soak up the present. But Schaefer gave Petit some sage advice about the increasing attention when the two talked recently.
"He's gonna be in that spot moving forward. He'll continue to get used to it and there will come a time where he's not even thinking about it," said Schaefer. "But it should be exciting, it's a testament to the hard work he's putting in. Keep doing your thing, keep having fun while you're out there because you only get one senior spring season. The scouts might show up, but in the end, it's still a kid's game."
Rock Hill faces Northwestern Monday, April 16
Rock Hill's R.J. Petit will get his next chance to impress scouts, and beat a rival, on Monday, April 16 when the Bearcats face 5A No. 1-ranked Northwestern. The Trojans will likely start either Furman signee Rob Hughes or South Carolina signee Wesley Sweatt on the mound and undoubtedly more than a few pro scouts will be posted up behind the backstop watching both starting pitchers.
"They're our biggest rivals, they're the No. 1 team in the state, so my goal is to pitch my best, not allow any runs," said Petit, who has 77 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 42 innings this season. "Just be confident, I'm just gonna pitch my game, do what I do."