Justin Dillon finds comfort in all things outdoors.
A hike, a hunt, a swim. A bow, a fishing pole or a rifle in his grasp, and you’ve got the making of a happily bearded and burly fellow who looks more wilderness than corporate desk guy. This is Sacramento State’s version of “Gunsmoke” figure Marshal Matt Dillon, calloused hands at the ready to strike.
Oh, and there’s another fresh-air vantage point the senior from Placerville craves: The mound.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Hornets ace is in the midst of one of the finest pitching seasons in program history, having overcome myriad injuries and doubts as to if his body could handle the rigors of this sport. Dillon tossed a historic no-hitter early this season, overcame a bit of a slump as he ironed out his mechanics and has found his groove again.
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Dillon earned Western Athletic Conference Tournament MVP honors after going 2-0 last weekend, helping the Hornets win the event and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
On Thursday at 6 p.m., Dillon will take the mound against top-seeded Stanford in the Stanford Regional, bearing his usual no-fear mantra. He led the WAC with 103 strikeouts, three times striking out 10 or more. His 182 career strikeouts place him in the top 10 in program history. Dillon is 5-7, a record that is a bit misleading considering some of the teams he’s faced. He has a 3.12 ERA and has pitched his best of late, which equates to perfect timing, considering the pedigree of Stanford.
Rain, shine, heat or humidity, Dillon is in his element in uniform or camouflage behind a tree. Or even in boots. Dillon lays down a lot of rebar for concrete slabs for part-time work as he polishes off his last four units needed to graduate with a degree in recreation and park administration.
Dillon also grew an affinity for what his parents, Brad and Cheri, dabbled in for years. They are retired machinists, having helped construct massive robotic arms for submarines.
“I’m a Godly man and I fell in love with nature,” Dillon said. “I love anything outdoors. I grew up messing around with tractors and engines. I’d get into construction if I didn’t have a future in baseball. A desk job would be hard for me.”
Dillon is projected to go in rounds 10-15 of the draft that runs June 12-14. Don’t expect to see a tie stretched around his thick neck anytime soon.
Dillon said there are parallels to, say, fishing or hunting and pitching. Primarily, poise under pressure.
“You have to be patient,” he said.
Funny he said that. Patience hasn’t always worked with Dillon’s quest to compete.
His Sac State career was stalled in 2013 with Tommy John surgery to repair his pitching elbow. He bounced back to become the Hornets’ third starter in 2014, when they won the WAC Tournament and made their first Division I postseason appearance. Dillon went 6-6 in 2015 but missed the majority of the 2016 campaign with a groin injury.
Dillon did not pitch in the fall, frustrated that he could not exert the power needed on the mound.
“He was set to graduate, and he set up a vacation last November for an elk hunt,” Sac State coach Reggie Christiansen said. “I told him to shut it down, get away for awhile, see what happens.”
What happened was he bagged an elk in a Colorado hunt and came back ready to give pitching another shot.
“He faced some live pitching in January for the first time in a long time, and then in his second start, he threw the no-hitter,” Christiansen said. “Unbelievable. Amazing. I feel so good for him.”
Dillon’s 2-0, 13-strikeout masterpiece against Northern Kentucky on Feb. 23 was his crowning moment. It was the first no-hitter in Sac State’s Division I history, dating to 1991, and it earned him multiple national Pitcher of the Week accolades.
“It’s been a blessing,” Dillon said of his return to form and season in general. “It had me reflecting a lot of what I did right and what I did wrong. I got so caught up in competing earlier here, trying to get bigger and stronger, that I overdid the strength training and neglected the mobility.
“Before the season, I wasn’t sure if I was ready. (Pitching coach Jake Angier) told me to trust my stuff, that I was ready. I didn’t pitch scared and I knew I needed to be a leader for our younger guys – don’t be fearful.”
Dillon has the respect and admiration of his teammates and coaches.
“First of all, he’s the greatest dude you’ll ever meet,” junior infielder Vinny Esposito said. “Just a great dude who is a bulldog on the mound. He’s earned all of this.”