The experience Greater Atlanta Christian’s Justin Lewis has with the school’s state championship basketball team has come in handy in helping him lead the Spartans baseball team through this spring’s state playoffs. (Photo: David Friedlander)
NORCROSS — Standing 6-foot-6 and sporting an athletics scholarship to attend the University of Kentucky in the fall, one might naturally first think basketball when simply looking at Justin Lewis.
And to be sure, the Greater Atlanta Christian senior has played a vital role in helping the Spartans’ boys basketball team to the Class AA state championship the past two seasons.
But make no mistake, Lewis’ first passion, and perhaps his biggest contributions to GAC athletics, is on the baseball diamond.
“Playing (basketball) for Eddie Martin is always fun to do,” Lewis said. “And winning state championships, you can’t go wrong with that. (But baseball has) been my favorite (sport) since I was 4 years old.”
As important as Lewis has been to GAC’s state hoops championship team, particularly this past season, his role with the Spartans baseball team during its surprising run to the Class AA state finals has been even larger, whether it is on the mound as the starting pitcher, at the plate or in the field at third base.
And when GAC travels to Savannah to take on Benedictine in the title series that begins with Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. doubleheader, the Spartans will look to him for leadership, something he should be well-prepared for having played before big crowds in pressure-packed situations on the basketball court.
“I’ve never at any time thought that he was feeling pressure,” GAC baseball coach Cliff Shelton said. “He handles it really well, and I really think basketball has a lot to do with that. You win two state championships in basketball, you’re going to be in some pressure situations. I’ve never sensed panic or lack of confidence in him, which is pretty amazing.”
When you have the kind multi-faceted skills Lewis has, there’s usually little reason to panic.
In addition to providing solid defense at third base, he has also provided some jolt in the middle of the Spartans’ batting order by hitting .299 with a team-best three home runs and 11 RBIs in 77 at bats.
But Lewis’ (4-4) biggest role on the team is on the mound where he shares the team lead with four wins, leads the team in strikeouts (42) and innings pitched (49 2/3) and is second only to teammate Ben Childers in earned run average (1.83).
What is perhaps most remarkable about those numbers is how he is able to put them up, or similar numbers, despite getting his high school season off to a late start each year.
The success of the GAC basketball team has meant Lewis hasn’t been able to join the Spartans’ batting order or starting rotation until mid- to late-March each of the last two seasons.
So, it’s really only now that he is starting to reach his peak.
“I try to throw bullpens a lot of times after basketball practice,” said Lewis, who went 2-3 with a 1.69 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 29 innings, and hit two homers with 14 RBIs as a junior last season. “Sometimes, I’ll ask (Daily Post Boys Basketball Player of the Year) Isaiah Wilkins to play catch with me after basketball practice.
“The first week of the (baseball) season is always a little rough, but it’s pretty good after that.”
Indeed, it hasn’t taken Lewis long to make the transition each of the last two seasons.
Shelton says it was really a year ago that he began to notice how much the work he put in during the offseason has helped him adjust more quickly.
“Last year, I remember the first game we put him in, he was throwing at Wesleyan,” Shelton recalled. “I had an assistant coach with a (radar) gun in the bleachers, and he came down and said, ‘Hey, (Lewis is) throwing 90 (mph). I said, ‘No way!’ And he said, ‘I’m serious. Look at the gun.’
“So, he’s so tall and so long and smooth (with his delivery), it’s kind of deceiving how hard he throws. I don’t think he realized until then how gifted he was, that he had a chance to play college baseball.”
That added confidence should come in handy in what figures to be a pressure-packed and hostile environment at Benedictine for the championship series.
Besides, as Lewis points out, it’s nothing he hasn’t already handled either this year during four straight playoff series on the road, or in the basketball playoffs the past two years.
“One thing different about basketball is, it’s kind of up-tempo, and baseball is kind of slowed down, so you can hear everything,” Lewis said. “I just let it not get to me and just go out and do my thing and not let it get to me.”