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Originally published April 28, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified April 30, 2010 at 9:59 PM

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Bishop Blanchet baseball star Josh Sale always hunting for the perfect pitch

Josh Sale, a senior at Bishop Blanchet, is hitting .560 this season. The hard worker is likely to be a first-round choice in the draft this June.

Seattle Times staff reporter

BURIEN — It is 6:15 a.m., and Josh Sale is hunting.

While several bleary-eyed teenagers amble into RIPS Baseball Training Complex, the Bishop Blanchet senior is wide awake, ready to work. He walks in with two bats — one metal, one wood — and walks past a row of cages.

Off to one side, large sheets of lined yellow paper are stapled to a green wall. There is a list of times on each sheet, and Sale's name is written between 6 and 6:30 a.m. five days a week.

He stretches and slips on batting gloves. He steps under the netting of Cage 4 and picks up a T-ball bat. He takes one-handed cuts off a tee. Then he grabs a wooden bat and practices a walk-up approach off the tee.

One step. Two steps. Thwack. Swoosh. The ball explodes into the netting.

Then Aaron Horrocks, Sale's personal hitting coach, lobs him some underhand pitches. After that, he takes live batting practice.

This is what it takes to be a hunter, to train someone's eyes to pick up the perfect pitch.

"I'm looking for a certain pitch," Sale says. "I'm hunting, as we like to call it. It's being picky, but it's the ball that you're looking for."

Teammate Sam Williams tries to shake Sale's focus, but later says, "Getting into his head is like trying to break into the White House."

After a little more than an hour of work, Sale talks to a scout who made the early-morning trip to the cage, packs up and heads to school.

There is a reason the left-handed-hitting outfielder is the top baseball prospect in the state. It starts with his natural gifts, the simple ability to drive a baseball out of any park with a quick turn of the hips and a swing of the bat. But it is his work ethic, the ability to get up before sunrise and get cuts in before school every day, that sets him apart.

The thrill of the hunt, the quest for the perfect pitch, drives him.

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Keep your eye on the ball

Jesse Sale starts to laugh when he thinks back to the first time his son hit a golf ball.

It was one of those plastic golf sets, a starter kit for 1-year-old protégés. Jesse and his wife, Kelley Richardson, took their son to a park and set a ball on the ground.

"Pull out that big club," Jesse told his son.

Kelley provided words of encouragement.

"Keep your eye on the ball," she said.

Josh picked the ball up and placed it against one eye. He set it back on the ground, took a swing and made contact.

"He was so literal," Jesse said, trying to stifle a laugh.

As a child, golf became Sale's first passion. He told his father he wanted to be an athlete when he was about 5 years old. Jesse didn't ask for much.

"You've got to give me your best effort every day," Jesse said at the time.

Sale found golf because of his father. They watched Tiger Woods play and Sale, who originally golfed left-handed, dreamed of one day competing at Stanford and on the PGA Tour.

One day, before he turned 10, he was messing around with a friend on the course. He picked up a right-handed driver and knocked the ball 200 yards. The people who saw the swing thought it looked natural, so he kept doing it.

He worked his way to a single-digit handicap, but at 13 his baseball game started to take off.

"The challenge of being able to hit better pitching and do it consistently and as best I could at that age was something that really gave me a drive to get better and better," Sale said.

The early-morning drive

There aren't many teenagers who look forward to an early wake-up call. But some of Sale's fondest memories involve pre-dawn drives with his dad.

When Sale was a student at St. Alphonsus in Ballard, the family lived in Renton. Because Jesse worked nearby, he would drive his son to school every day. Sometimes they would sit in silence, but sometimes they would talk about Tiger's round at the Masters or something Sale saw on "SportsCenter."

"My dad and I have a pretty special bond you don't find in too many other places," Sale said.

After school, Jesse would pick up his son and take him to the driving range. They hit bucket after bucket before driving over to RIPS for Sale's hitting lesson.

"We've had a lot of quality time just in that transition to wherever we're going," said Jesse, a former drug-free power lifter who designs his son's weightlifting program.

After a lifetime of daily drives, Sale can be considered a morning person. But when he tells people he wakes up every morning to go hit, it catches them by surprise, including scouts, who have to see it before they believe it.

The hunter's eye

On a cold, early-April evening, Josh Sale steps into the box looking for a fastball.

He is hunting.

Redmond starter Zach Abbruzza gives him a couple, but they aren't where Sale wants them.

He works three walks and scores two runs.

"I'm not going to swing at something I'm not looking for or else my chances of getting out go up enormously," Sale said.

In Sport Illustrated's baseball preview issue, columnist Joe Posnanski called plate discipline the sixth tool. Blanchet coach George Monica tosses out the traditional five-tool-player reference while talking about Sale, but it is Sale's mastery of that sixth tool that makes the senior a more polished prospect than many high-school hitters.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to be a left-handed power hitter.

"We just can't find guys that have enough juice to get the ball out of the ballpark," one professional scout said. "There are a lot of guys who hit for power, but they don't have the discipline at the plate to grind out at-bats. I think Josh has a chance to hit for a pretty good batting average and hit some bombs and doubles. That's what really separates him."

For Sale, picking pitches is as much of a science as physics or astronomy.

"People were wondering why I don't swing at curveballs or breaking pitches," Sale said. "To be perfectly honest, the more the ball moves, it's harder to hit. That's common knowledge. It's changing planes. You've got to adjust your hands, adjust your eye level."

ESPN's Keith Law has Sale in his top 10 of top draft-eligible prospects, and he seems like a safe bet to be taken in the first round. Sale already owns the Blanchet career RBI and home-run record and is currently hitting .560.

"He's worked really hard to get where he's at," Monica said. "He's got some ability, because you can't not have ability and be this good a player. But I think there are a lot of people with a lot of ability, but they don't work as hard as he has. He's really put in the time, devoted himself in a lot of different ways to becoming a great player, and it's paid off for him."

Sale is just 18, but he has found his passion — the perfect pitch. Thwack. Swoosh. The hunt continues.

Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or mkelley@seattletimes.com

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