As the third day of the baseball draft was about to begin on Wednesday, a nervous Francisco Justo handed his cell phone to his older brother, Javier, and went into his bedroom in his family’s basement apartment in the Bronx to play a video game.
Justo, a 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher from Monroe Junior College, had been told there was a good chance he would be drafted but he did not want to constantly be looking on his phone hoping to see his name.
“I was impatient because I wanted to get drafted,” Justo said.
He only had to wait a few minutes before Javier burst into Justo’s bedroom with the news that he had been drafted by the Cardinals in the 12th round. Justo grabbed his phone and looked, just to make sure his brother was not playing a trick on him.
“I was like, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Justo said in a telephone interview. “I still can’t believe it. It’s like a dream. It’s a dream come true definitely … I’ve been waiting for this all my life. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to put on a professional uniform. Thank you to the Cardinals for giving me that opportunity.”
That dream began when Justo was a small boy growing up in the Dominican Republic. His dad, also named Francisco, was a handyman, and his mother took care of the two boys. When Justo was 8, the family moved to New York, where other relatives lived.
“I came from a humble beginning,” Justo said. “We came over here for a better future. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to play baseball. That was my dream.”
Justo pursued his dream in high school, but an injury to his father, the superintendent of the five-story apartment building where the family lives, limited how much time he could play as a senior.
“He broke his ankle, so basically my brother and I had to wear the pants of the house,” Justo said. “We had to go and find a job to support the family. I played very little because of the situation we were in.”
After graduating, and his father’s recovery, Justo decided in 2016 to move back to the Dominican for six months, where he could focus more on training and making himself a better pitcher. He said he really did not do it so he could get discovered by scouts, which is what happened with the Cardinals’ top prospect, Alex Reyes, several years ago when he moved there from his home in New Jersey.
“I went over there to train,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t ready. I worked very hard, day in and day out. It was long days. I woke up at 5:30 to run, then did what I had to do, and went on another jog at night. It really taught me to be independent and be the man that I am today. I was over there basically by myself.
“I went over there with a goal. I wanted to leave that country better than I was when I came in. That was the only thing I was thinking about. I wanted to be better at the game that I loved.”
When he returned to New York, Justo, now 19, was able to land a spot on the Monroe College roster. The coach there, Luis Melendez, remembered watching Justo pitch and had recruited him when he was a junior in high school.
“We had him over for a workout and were like, ‘Hey, you want a chance, an opportunity, to play college baseball we have a home for you,’” Melendez said Wedneday. “He decided to sign on with us and here we are, 12th round.
“He’s a kid who really enjoys the game of baseball. He looks like a Little Leaguer out there having fun with his friends. We’re just happy he’s going to be able to do it at the next level.”
Justo made his first start for Monroe on Feb. 27, and made a pretty good impression on Melendez by throwing six shutout innings, allowing three hits and striking out 14.
“It was against Harford Community College in Maryland, and they are an offensive powerhouse,” Melendez said. “I looked at my pitching coach and said, ‘Wow, there’s something special coming out of that arm coach.’ We might be onto something.”
For Justo, all he was doing was what he had always done, albeit at a different level.
“The best that I do is just having fun,” justo said. “I always try to locate my pitches, a fastball and curveball combination, and throw my changeup just to throw the batters off. I just try to attack the strike zone. I’m going to throw it and if you hit it, you hit it.”
Opponents didn’t hit it very often this season. In 71 innings, Justo allowed only 39 hits, holding opponents to a .159 average en route to a 10-0 season and a 2.01 ERA. In those 71 innings, he struck out 121 hitters as he led the Mustangs to a berth in the junior college World Series in Colorado. In five of his starts he recorded at least 11 strikeouts.
“Greatest experience I’ve ever had in baseball,” Justo said about the Junior College World Series. “Going out there and having fun. They treated us like big leaguers. We were signing autographs for kids. Seeing all of the scenery compared to what I am used to in the Bronx. Over here we see concrete and buildings. Seeing the mountains was amazing.”
Melendez said Justo went “above and beyond” his expectations.
“His delivery is effortless,” Melendez said. “When you look at it from the dugout or the stands you wouldn’t think that he’s throwing with the velocity the gun is reading. The ball gets up on the hitter very quickly and has late life. His fastball was his dominating pitch, but he also was able to throw his off-speed stuff for strikes in fastball counts.
“He’s a kid with intellect. He was over a 3.0 student. He has aptitude. … He’s a bulldog. He’s a competitor. He’s like an 11-year-old out there. He has fun.”
Now, Justo is prepared to have fun as a professional aftet the Cardinals selected him on the recommendations of area scout Jim Negrych and crosschecker Zach Mortimer. Justo expects to report to the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter, Fla., this weekend.
“Ever since I started playing I had a blast out there,” he said of playing baseball. “I tried my best to have fun every single day. That translated into good energy and translated into me being successful.”
Justo was one of 30 players drafted by the Cardinals on Wednessay, a group that included 16 pitchers, 15 of them from the college ranks. The only high school pitcher drafted by the Cardinals was Jaden Hill, a right-hander from Ashdown, Ark., who is committed to LSU.
Among the players were Parker Kelly, a right-handed pitcher from Oregon and the brother of the Cardinals’ Carson Kelly; and Benito Santiago Jr., a catcher from Tennessee and the son of former major-leaguer Benito Santiago.