April 4, 2017, published in the Orange County Register
John Gavin replayed bits of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas game in his head, combing through his pitches that night. The junior southpaw for No. 5 Cal State Fullerton (17-10, 2-1) rated himself on a scale of 1 to 10, as he does after every game, with the scrutiny of a pathologist conducting an autopsy.
Except it was just Gavin, alone with his thoughts, in the lab that is his mind.
8? No way (Gavin doesn’t consider 8s, let alone 9s or 10s).
7.5? Nope (He remembered some pitches he left up. He hurried his pitches. He didn’t have as much command of his slider as he had hoped).
7.25? Alright, he thought, shrugging his shoulders. I’ll go with that.
Gavin, who pitched a then career-high 7.1 innings of scoreless baseball to help the Titans to a 5-0 win on Feb. 26, measures himself with a different yardstick from his peers.
Even as he leads the Big West Conference in earned run average (1.63) in 38.2 innings of work (and, prior to giving up two runs in Sunday’s win over UC Riverside, had tossed 17 consecutive shutout innings), he expects more of himself.
Gavin (3-0) doesn’t want to pitch alright. To pitch so-so. To even pitch well. He wants to be great. Nothing less.
“John’s the hardest person on John,” said Jim Gavin, his father.
The passion oozes out of all 6-feet-6 inches, 250 pounds of Gavin once he steps between the lines. It’s not his velocity or his control; it’s the pogo-stick energy, the burning competitiveness that defines John Gavin.
Against New Mexico on March 19, he roared — yelling for fans to get loud — the fire in his belly blazing. Pitching a career-high 8.0 innings, he allowed just two hits, zero earned runs and zero walks while striking out a career-high 14 batters — the most of any Titan since Thomas Eshelman in 2015. “I was getting ready to run a marathon after that,” Gavin said.
That competitiveness once threatened to compromise his play. Now, it fuels him.
“That’s just who he is,” said Mike Oakland, Gavin’s former coach at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View. “I think it’s also one of the things that makes him great — because he’s never satisfied.”
Over his CSUF career, Gavin has started on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. He didn’t expect the Sunday role this season, but he takes his job seriously — no matter the day. “I wasn’t too upset about Sunday,” Gavin said, “but at the same time, it’s good to have that little bit of extra motivation.”
As if he needed more.
“He was competitive from the time he could walk,” Jim said. “He wanted to turn everything into a game.”
Eight-year-old Gavin would cry if he lost a basketball or Wiffle ball game. He was the middle-schooler no one wanted to sit next to, as he came to class after recess drenched in sweat, having treated kickball like a Game 7 NBA Finals. When neighbors heard the bat crack or the net move at dawn, they knew John was up.
Gavin dominated as a youth, towering over his peers and throwing with solid velocity, but when he went to Saint Francis, he was no longer the best player. Freshmen rarely played on varsity (65 tried out just for the 25-member freshman squad). Students compared tests, teasing those receiving an A minus or B plus.
Trying out for varsity as a sophomore, Gavin was to pitch on the last day, but told the coaches he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t think he could throw. The coaches told him he’d have to show he could compete if he wanted a spot.
“I don’t even think he thought he was going to make the team,” Oakland said. Gavin pitched, cracked the roster, fought for innings and proved himself as a starter.
But Gavin wanted to be so good, so badly, sometimes he got in his own way. Baseball was more than “just a game” to him. If you told him the only way he could play was to move to Antarctica, he’d have the next flight booked.
During intersquad practices, his eyes swelled with tears if he made a mistake. “If he had a bad inning or bad outing, it was like throwing gas on a fire,” said Eric Pini, St. Francis’ pitching coach.
Gavin cooled his competitiveness during games, but didn’t like being taken out after four or five innings (after throwing 70 or 80 pitches) when his coaches wanted to save his arm for postseason.
So how to mine Gavin’s gold without losing the edge that made him shine?
After a bullpen session, Pini suggested Gavin turn his two solid breaking balls (a curveball and a slider) into one really strong pitch, a slurve (combo of both), that became a bit more like a slider. Gavin resisted.
“You have the potential to be one of the most dominant pitchers here,” Pini told Gavin. “You can’t give me the keys to drive a car and then sit in the passenger seat and tell me how to drive. You can’t tell a girl you’re kind of in love with her. You’re either in love with her, or you’re not.”
“You’re either all in,” Pini said, “or you’re not.”
Gavin showed up the next day and tossed Pini a set of keys — he was ready to work. He hardly rested, morphing into California’s top recruit, prepared to weather the challenges college would bring.
Cal State Fullerton was Gavin’s dream school since seventh grade. Naturally, the freshman wanted the moon, but would have to claw for innings alongside stars in Thomas Eshelman, Justin Garza and Tyler Peitzmeier.
The coaches wanted him in better shape, so he shed 25 pounds. He thrived as the Sunday starter in 2015, but sometimes got frustrated when he’d come out after five innings.
There was that competitiveness again, rising in his chest. But Gavin learned to breathe, developing mental toughness to move forward.
“You could see him working on it in his next outing and next couple of outings,” Pini said.
When Garza went down with a Tommy John injury, Gavin rose to the challenge of taking over Saturday duties. He went 7-3 in 17 starts in 2015, earning Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honors.
Sophomore year, Gavin dominated in the fall, but struggled in his first few spring 2016 outings.
“I remember calling my dad, crying, saying, ‘I’m not going to be able to play baseball again,’” Gavin said. “Thank God for my dad pretty much telling me to suck it up.”
Jim has always been John’s compass, offering not just direction but perspective. Jim doesn’t sugarcoat stuff. He’s always told his son that performance isn’t linear — there will be down days, so confront the negative (and positive) aspects of a situation and get back to work.
Gavin led the team with a 2.09 ERA, allowing 20 earned runs in 86 innings pitched, going 6-3 with one save, limiting opponents to a .201 clip.
But playing in the Cape Cod League that summer? “I just absolutely got obliterated,” Gavin said. “Going into this season, I knew I was nowhere close to where I needed to be. I needed to get better. I needed to put everything I had into getting better.”
The work shows, as he leads the Big West in ERA and sits fourth in wins (3) and seventh in strikeouts (39).
The communications/public relations major and American Studies minor hadn’t known that he earned National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Pitcher of the Week after his dominant outing against New Mexico until his girlfriend told him.
“No one really cares what you did two weeks ago. No one really cares what you did even last week, if you’re having a bad outing this week,” Gavin said.
“I take that to heart. I know that I’m going to have to do what I need to do each and every week,” Gavin said. “Next week I have to turn the page and say, ‘Alright, you gotta prove yourself again.’”