It's a 16-mile drive from Justin Herberger's home in north Keizer to St. Paul High School. With his house located near Volcanoes Stadium on the outskirts of the Salem-Keizer School District, Herberger lives much closer to nearby McNary High School than he does to St. Paul, but make no doubt, the incoming junior bleeds the blue and white colors of the Buckaroos.
"He's a St. Paul kid through and through," St. Paul baseball coach Julio Vela said. "We never considered he would be anything but a St. Paul kid, because he always has been here since kindergarten."
That's because his mother, Kristin Herberger, has been an educator in St. Paul for nearly 30 years and has educated her son alongside her in St. Paul, where he has thrived as a student and an athlete at the small 2A school district.
Herberger is a little more than a month removed from an incredible sophomore season with the St. Paul baseball team. The second-year lefty was dominant on offense, where he led the Bucks in hits (34), doubles (7), triples (7), home runs (2), RBIs (37) and batting average (.442). But he was even better on the mound, with an ERA of 1.50 while striking out 93 batters and giving up just five walks total in more than 50 innings this season. That's what earned him Special District 2 Pitcher of the Year honors.
"The most impressive statistic is that he had five walks," Vela said. "That keeps you in ball games. When you are throwing strikes and putting the ball in play, it is easy to play defense behind you, because you're expecting the ball to come."
Those numbers, which are hard to ignore no matter what classification they come against, landed Herberger an invitation to the fifth annual Futures Game on June 30 at Volcanoes Stadium, not too far from his home.
A two-game series featuring the top juniors, sophomores and freshmen from around the state, the event is largely dominated by athletes from programs at the 6A and 5A classifications. Players were divided up into two teams — the National and the American — and played a pair of seven-inning games on the home field of the Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
"It was a good experience to get out there and play," Herberger said. "There was good talent everywhere. It was a fun time."
Unlike normal games, the pitchers were given a schedule of what innings they would appear in during the series. Herberger was slated to throw during the fifth and sixth. If it all went well, his appearance would be short and sweet. But if he floundered up there, there would be no one to relieve him until he got his six outs.
Though he's pitched in big games in the past, Herberger was still understandably anxious going into the first pitch of his appearance. But the butterflies melted away once the ball left his hand in live play for the first time.
"I was really nervous before the game, but once it began, I was pumped," he said. "My pitches were working and they were swinging. I had a great catcher and it was easy to throw to him."
Herberger finished the game with a strong performance, with one unearned run allowed and one hit given up in two innings. He didn't record any strikeouts, but he also didn't give up any walks, bringing the level of accuracy that made him the top pitcher in the Special District 2 Conference this past season.
"I thought he was sharp," Vela said. "He certainly wasn't overpowering anybody, but if you throw strikes and have a good defense behind you, you're going to look good."
Herberger even got to face a familiar foe in his time on the mound, pitching junior Brandon Piete of the conference rival Regis Rams. Piete was the only other player from a 2A program to get an invite to the event, and Herberger got him to pop out to deep left field.
"He got all that ball though, it was flying pretty hard," Herberger said. "He's a good guy and it was a good experience to pitch against him."
Afterward, the two rivals embraced and took pictures together for their fans and family. The next week, it was back to the grindstone, playing with the Buckaroos' summer league team, bringing the level of commitment and work that made him such a strong player this past season.
A three-sport athlete in basketball and football as well, Herberger's commitment to the baseball team goes beyond the official start of the season on Feb. 17 when coaches are allowed to work out with the full team. Between seasons, Vela is only allowed to work with two players at a time per OSAA rules, and he tries to make himself available to whoever calls or texts him during the week.
More often than not, Herberger is on the other line, bugging the baseball coach to come in after basketball or football practice. When he and Vela work on weekends, Herberger makes that 16-mile trip to the high school to meet up for workouts.
"I don't know when the season started for him," Vela said. "I don't know when the season ended for him."
For Herberger, all the hours and all the effort have helped pay off. He'll return for his junior year as one of the best pitchers in the state at the 2A level. On top of that he'll have the added confidence and experience of playing against and beating some of the best players in the state.
"It was well deserved," Vela said. "I thought it was a great opportunity for him and I hope he was able to soak it in."