Photo: (Lafayette Athletics).
By Will Locklin
It wasn’t an easy path into professional baseball for J.P. Woodward. The Jersey BlueClaws pitcher (Philadelphia Phillies High-A) filled in a relief role in high school. He never started a game at the Boys Latin School in Maryland, but the Baltimore, Maryland native had impressive gifts with his 6-foot-6 left-handed frame. However, he had little to show for it in high school.
“I was a really average baseball player almost my entire life,” Woodward said in a recent interview. “Growing up I was never on any crazy travel teams and never threw super hard. Even in high school I didn’t start a game all four years. I was probably worse than average.”
Woodward planned to stop playing baseball after his senior year of high school. He didn’t have the natural talent to throw a baseball at a high velocity. He lacked confidence, which got in the way of him attending showcase camps and tournaments where he could get on the radar of college coaches.
When he started college, Woodward focused on academics and attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania – a program the DC Grays boast a strong connection with. Although he didn’t initially attend college for baseball, Woodward still wanted to be connected to the game.
“They came and saw me that summer and told me I could be with the team in the fall as a walk-on,” Woodward said. “That’s really when my baseball career went full story mode.”
During his freshman season, Woodward was once again a relief pitcher. He made tremendous strides with his training and preparation for pitching. The structure of college allowed him to improve his game. Woodward jumped from throwing 80 miles-miles-per-hour to 86 miles-per-hour in a year.
“I fell in love with the process,” Woodward said. “I never had the idea that I was going to play pro ball or even be a starter for Lafayette. “But it was really fun seeing these goals get met. Once I kept sticking to it a lot of good things happened.”
One of those good things came in the summer after his freshman season in 2018 when he joined the DC Grays. Originally, Woodward was on tap to play in a local Maryland summer league. However, one of his coaches, Gregg Durrah, had a connection with current Grays General Manager Chris Spera, who invited JP Woodward to join the team for the summer.
However, even with an invite to the Ripken League, his summer didn’t get off to the best start. On Opening Day, Woodward was tasked with making his first start in years. He was given a lot of responsibility right off the bat – a responsibility that he wasn’t quite yet ready for.
Through five innings, Woodward yielded nine hits and five earned runs to the eventual 2018 Ripken League champions, the Bethesda Big Train. Going from relief to starter was a sudden change but one that over time he would get used to.
“After our pitching coach told me ‘who cares, you got good stuff so go out there and have fun,’ I remember thinking you know what he’s right,” Woodward said. “From that point on I went out there and had a blast and my coaches and teammates were a big part of that.”
Just six days later, Woodward made his second Grays start. Going up against the Baltimore Redbirds, he went through six innings of two-hit baseball with five strikeouts. The bounce-back start was the beginning of a hot stretch for Woodward.
From June 11 through July 8 Woodward had five starts and in each one of them, he went six innings at the minimum. The larger role had its adjustment period but Woodward thrived when he became comfortable with the workload.
“It was a reps thing and I finally got used to the fact that I was a good pitcher,” Woodward said. “Starting to throw more innings as a good pitcher facing good hitters with really fun teammates to play with. I got comfortable out there and that’s where my confidence came from.”
The environment within the Grays became infectious after the first few games of the season. DC began 2-5 to start the summer but then proceeded to go on a seven-game win streak. The rise in team culture and chemistry was a big reason for the surge.
“We had an awesome group of guys, that was one of the most fun times I’ve had playing baseball,” Woodward said. “We showed up every day and had a really good time. I looked forward to getting to the field every day. They made a fun environment to play baseball.”
A looser and more flexible environment helped ease the pressure of transitioning to a starter. College baseball, though, can have a strict schedule and more rules to follow.
“I would lift with my trainer back home and do my own throwing program,” Woodward said. “The coaches supported whatever we wanted to do as long as it was getting us better. There was a ton of freedom there and that made it a fun time.”
This newly given freedom allowed Woodward to get better each game. And that was precisely what he did. From his first start to his fifth of the summer, Woodward dropped his ERA with each journey on the mound. In his fifth start against the Baltimore Dodgers, Woodward peaked at a 1.90 ERA. He allowed a mere two hits and tied a season-high with eight strikeouts.
“Being a walk-on who didn’t know if he belonged to a good pitcher against guys who are at Division 1 or top of Division 2 or Division 3,” Woodward said. “That summer it was about my mentality more than anything.”
The Cal Ripken League regular-season finale for the Grays ended up becoming a classic summer baseball game. To clinch a playoff spot, the Grays had to beat the Redbirds. Not only did they win but they did so in walk-off fashion and won 7-6.
“Our guy hit a single right up the middle and it was a bang-bang play at the plate and [he] was safe,” Woodward said. “We walked off to make the playoffs and the whole team stormed the field.”
After the conclusion of Woodward’s season with the DC Grays, he returned to Lafayette a much-improved pitcher on the outside and inside. He impressed his college coaches so much in the fall that they gave him a spot on the starting pitcher staff for his sophomore season.
“That fall and winter I took major strides velocity wise so the summer with the Grays was huge because I grew my confidence and mindset,” Woodward said.
At the end of his junior season at Lafayette, Woodward transitioned to pro ball. With the shortened 2020 Major League Draft, he signed as a free agent by the Phillies and was promoted to their High-A affiliate last August. Since that point, Woodward has been grinding his way through minor league baseball.
“I’m back to being a reliever so the biggest grind is playing six days a week and keeping my arm in shape,” Woodward said. “But at the end of the day, the right mindset is to go out there and have fun.”
Even with the pressure and grind that is minor league baseball, Woodward falls back on his experience from his time with the Grays. Relaxing and having fun on the mound are two important factors for Woodward to be successful in baseball. They’re also two areas Woodward might not have applied without his Grays experience.
“It set a good foundation for the rest of my collegiate career and now into pro ball,” Woodward said. It was the perfect balance between competitiveness, fun, and a place to grow as a player and person. That’s all you can ask for.”
From a walk-on at Lafayette to now a minor league baseball player in the Phillies organization, JP Woodward has been through incredible growth as a baseball player.
He constantly worked at his craft to get where he is but he also developed a true love for the game. This love was sparked from his time with the DC Grays where he not only had fun while playing but also saw lots of personal success to fuel his rise.