Three years ago, P.J. Francescon was filling a void.
When a shoulder injury derailed his sophomore baseball season at Middle Tennessee State, Francescon turned to heavy machinery. He dropped out of school and drove a forklift, loading and unloading tractor trailers for a shipping company in Smyrna.
“It was good pay — really good pay, actually,” Francescon recalled on Monday.
But as he lifted tons of freight every day, he couldn’t unload a thought that constantly weighed heavy on his mind.
“I got to the point where I felt like I was wasting all this talent,” he said. “I felt like I should get back into it. I just missed it real bad.”
Less than two years after leaving the shipping business and returning to baseball, Francescon is moving up the professional baseball ladder. The Nolensville native is playing for the Daytona (Fla.) Cubs, the High-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, who selected him in the 40th round of the 2011 MLB Draft after just one season at Trevecca Nazarene.
Last week he was named the Cubs minor league pitcher of the month after the right-hander went 3-1 with a 2.58 ERA and a complete game in six starts in May for the Low-A Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs and Daytona.
“It was an indication that my hard work is paying off,” Francescon, 23, said. “When I wasn’t playing I didn’t even think I’d be where I am right now. I’m just blessed to be.”
After a standout career at Ravenwood High School, Francescon landed at MTSU. Early in his sophomore year (2009), he sprained his shoulder, ending his season. The injury added to pitching woes and the frustration boiled over.
Francescon had enough. Or so he thought.
Not wanting to give up on his favorite sport he got in touch with local baseball instructor Jerry Bell. The former Belmont standout was serving as the pitching coach of the Nashville Outlaws, a now-defunct summer collegiate wooden bat league. Francescon found a spot on the Outlaws and drew the attention of another familiar face, then-Trevecca head coach Jonathan Burton. Francescon knew Burton from summer league baseball with Hit After Hit.
Francescon jumped at Burton’s offer to join the Trojans and he bolstered the pitching staff in his lone year at Trevecca. With a finely tuned changeup he went 6-2 with a 3.28 ERA, six complete games and two shutouts.
“Once I got to Trevecca and started working with Burton and [pitching coach Luke] Brown, I started getting my confidence back,” Francescon said. “After my success, it was really becoming a possibility that [getting drafted] could happen.”
He couldn’t have asked for a better professional debut.
Pitching for the Arizona League Cubs, that franchise's Rookie League affiliate, he allowed just one hit and struck out two in two innings to pick up a save. Two days later, he got the phone call that he was skipping short-season Class A and going straight to Low-A Peoria.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” Francescon said. “I added the sinker last year, which I think was a huge part of me moving up. A four-seam [fastball] will only get you so far and I learned that pretty quick last year. ... As long as you have a good sink to it, the harder the better. If you got a guy throwing 93-94 [miles per hour] with sink, that’s pretty filthy.”
Francescon has topped out at 92 miles per hour with his sinker — much of the reason why the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder is 5-3 with a 2.63 ERA in 13 starts this season.
Since his promotion to Daytona on May 21, he is 0-2 in four starts with a 4.50 ERA.
But he is not getting discouraged. He’s enjoying his new location. With all the opposing teams located in Florida, the bus rides are no longer than four hours. Not to mention the scenery is picturesque.
“I’ve always been a beach bum at heart,” he said. “It’s definitely a nice pit stop through the organization.”
When he’s not pitching, Francescon is busy perfecting a new hobby. He’s joined some teammates who engage in surf fishing. Francescon, an avid fisherman, wades into the ocean and throws out squid and shrimp, hoping to reel in the big catch.
“A lot of the guys have the big 10-foot, 12-foot poles,” he said. “You go down to the beach, cast out some bait, chill, get a tan and wait for something to hit it. ... It’s either golfing, fishing or sleeping in.”
Not a bad change of scenery from the warehouses he worked in two years ago.
The pay might be less than the $15 dollars an hour he was making driving a forklift, but Francescon relishes his time on the mound.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Any day of the week.”