SUSSEX COUNTY ADDS FORMER SETON HALL STAR BILLY LAYNE

Billy Layne Jr. grew up in New Jersey, the New Jersey that’s on the water, just north of Keyport, just across from Staten Island, with a great view of the Statue of Liberty across New York Harbor.

He’s never been to Sussex County.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said by phone recently from Cliffwood Beach, newly-signed and eager for the Miners season-opener on May 27 at Skylands Stadium. 

“You want to experience new things and new places,” he said. “ I just want to pitch. It doesn’t matter where; I want to pitch, and I want to get guys out.”

A 24-year-old right-hander, Layne has pitched in Vermont, Texas, and Washington, spending the past two years with Texas Rangers farm teams, after the Rangers drafted him in the 11th round out of Seton Hall University in 2018.

That was the second time the Rangers drafted him. He had said “no thank you” to them and headed off to college when they first drafted him out of Old Bridge High School in 2015.

Layne started his little league days as a catcher, and he enjoyed it. But, in the middle of a local mayor’s-trophy game, his team ran out of pitchers and his coach told him to take the mound and give it a try.

“I struck out the side, and that was it,” Layne said. “I loved baseball and I loved being a catcher, but pitching was something entirely different. I instantly loved pitching.”

He would still catch a little, and he played some center field as a high school freshman. After that, it was all pitching, leading his team deep into the state playoffs his junior and senior years, posting a 1.96 ERA and drawing the attention of pro scouts.

Instead, he chose to attend Seton Hall, where he was a red-shirt in 2016 and a spot-starter and reliever in 2017, finishing the year 3-1 with a 4.43 ERA.

Not bad, but not so sensational, either.

Then, things changed for the skinny kid who stood 6-foot-4.

Playing summer ball after his sophomore year, Layne bumped into a coach named Evan Wise, who is now the “pitching lab coordinator and director of player development” at Wake Forest University.

“I was always very quiet,” Layne said. “I kept to myself, including when I pitched.

“He told me that I needed to start acting like I knew I was good. One time, we got into it a little bit with each other and he said that’s what he wanted, to see me get fired up.

“He said that I had to go out to the mound thinking that I’m Roger Clemens, that nobody could touch me.”

The new, aggressive approach certainly worked.

Layne returned to the South Orange campus in 2018 with a new attitude, even a swagger, and he threw some beauties in that breakthrough year, including his nine strikeouts in six shutout innings in the Big East Conference championship game.

“Even my parents couldn’t believe how emotional I was on the mound that year,” he said. “They had never seen me showing any emotion on my face or hitting myself in the chest or anything like that.”

     After the season, he signed with the Rangers and reported to the Arizona Rookie League, moving on to the organization’s Short-Season Class-A team in Spokane in 2019.

He’ll arrive in Augusta with what Miners manager Bobby Jones calls “a starter’s body,” as he’s gone from his thin 170-pound frame a few years ago to a current weight around 215.

“I’ll probably get to 220 by the time I get to camp,” he said.

Ice cream? Lasagna?

“Definitely not,” he answered. “I fell in love with the weight room this year. I’m there five or six days a week.”

Jones knew all about it.

“That’s part of his development as a pitcher,” Jones said. “You learn that being in the weight room is your friend, not your enemy.”

The skipper was aware of Layne back at Seton Hall and has since talked about the young hurler with several of his many colleagues in the coaching and scouting worlds.

“Nothing but glowing reports,” Jones said. “He’s a very bright kid. I’m excited to see what he does here.”

A fan of both Manhattan and the Jersey Shore, Layne called Hall of Famer Greg Maddux his favorite all-time pitcher because of his use of guile to get the job done.

“In an era of so many flame-throwers, he made it look easy by fooling batters with all of his other pitches,” said Layne, a lifelong student of the game, who’s visited “awesome” Cooperstown several times.

“You want to be Roger Clemens all the time, but you can’t be, and that’s when you go for Greg Maddux and try to outsmart people,” he said.

When Layne takes the hill this year, batters will see a big, strong, 6-4 hurler, and they’ll be expecting plenty of heat.

But, with a sinker, slider, curveball and changeup in his repertoire, Layne will force them to do some guessing and second-guessing in the batter’s box. And that’s exactly what this thinking-man’s pitcher wants.

By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Trentonian.

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