For local high school and college athletes, the COVID-19 pandemic has either cancelled or shortened their spring seasons leaving them to wonder what could have been.
You can include Josh Becker in that list of frustrated athletes.
The 5-11, 195-pound righthander was into his sophomore season as the closer for the UMass Lowell baseball team, a team that was ready to pass on the Burlington native before he earned his opportunity to play Division 1 baseball for the River Hawks.
Becker, a mechanical engineering major, who dreamed of going to a Pac-12 school decided on UMass Lowell over Oregon State for his education and wasn’t sure baseball was in his future any longer after high school.
UMass Lowell head coach Ken Harring went out to see Becker in his last high school outing, a playoff loss to Beverly where Becker was roughed up and was coming off a long season with a tired arm.
“I had seen Josh (Becker) in high school and it turns out we weren’t going to have tryouts his freshman year,” recalled Harring. “When I saw him pitch for Burlington, he got hit around pretty good by Beverly and his velocity was below average.”
After a summer of pitching for Woburn in the Sr. Babe Ruth League, it appeared his future in baseball was at the club level, but after the tryout for the club team at UML, Becker never got a call back and his baseball future was in doubt.
However, it was at that tryout where he connected with his now teammate and battery mate, Matt DeBenedetto from North Reading who made the club team but the two worked out together when word broke the big club decided to have open tryouts and that is where Becker turned heads.
“At our tryout, his first pitch was six miles per hour faster than any pitch I had seen him throw in his high school outing,” said Harring. “We gave him two weeks to prove himself with us by practicing with the team. The thing that stood out was he was not afraid, was extremely competitive, and very coachable. You could tell he had a true passion for the team.”
Becker made the team but knew he had to earn his keep and make himself better.
“I knew we were going to play a really tough schedule and I needed to work to get any innings,” said Becker. “My fastball was up to 86-87 miles per hour and my curveball was average. I started messing around with a cut fastball and that helped me become a better pitcher.”
He was roughed up in his first college outing against Arizona (one inning pitched, three earned runs allowed) but it was an appearance a few weeks later against North Carolina that got the attention of pitching coach Brad Cook. Becker fanned eight batters in 4 2/3 innings pitched and two weeks later he was named the team’s closer.
Becker went 4-3 with a 4.44 earned run average striking out 56 batters in 52 2/3 innings while racking up five saves. He earned a spot on the America East All-Rookie team and was named UMass Lowell freshman Athlete of the Year for 2019. Not bad for a walk-on who had to earn his way at Burlington High School as well.
At BHS, Becker had just one varsity outing as a freshman (a blown save), and just six as a sophomore as he was behind two established pitchers in Evan Camaliri and Justin Hurley. It was that outing as a freshman that BHS manager Dan Hirsch knew he had something in Becker.
“I remember we put him into a pressure situation, and he took the loss and to be honest it was with a bit of a tough luck,” said Hirsch. “I just recall almost an hour after the game I was with my coaches and Josh is still over sitting on the bench with his father. I turned to my coaches and knew we had something with him.”
As a junior at BHS, he was slotted as the No. 2 starter and had an average year but when the Devils snuck into the state tournament and beat Wilmington in a 13-inning thriller behind Hurley and Coleman Began, it was left to Becker to deliver.
He delivered his first “big game performance” allowing just two hits over five innings pitched in the Devils 6-5 win over Masconomet before the Devils fell to Danvers in the Division 2 North semifinals.
He built on that with an epic senior season in 2018 where he was part of a combined no-hitter and finished the season with five complete-game shutouts, none more important than his last.
In the final regular season game of his senior season, the Devils played Wilmington with the Freedom Division title hanging in the balance and Becker answered with a complete game that included 13 strikeouts in a 3-0 win.
“I just remember it being a grind the whole game,” said Becker. “I remember the kid I pitched against and me were basically pitching to be named league MVP, so I took it as a challenge. I just battled and we got some runs across late to secure the league.”
Becker was named Middlesex Freedom Division MVP, a Boston Herald All-Scholastic, and the Daily Times Chronicle Pitcher of the Year.
In his shortened season at UMass Lowell this year, Becker was in the midst of a tough three-game stretch when the season ended abruptly.
He had three saves in seven appearances including a six-strikeout, two-inning save against Canisius on Feb. 14. He recorded 20 strikeouts in just 12 2/3 innings pitched before the season came to a close.
“The goal this year was to solidify myself as the closer for our team,” he added. “I had a good summer and I put some weight on (about 20 lbs.) and got the fastball up to 89-90 and developed a much better curveball.”
For now, like most athletes in the area, he sits and waits, wondering when his baseball future will continue and Hirsch even suggested, “I expect him to be drafted”.
As for Becker when asked about the possibility, he answered in his typical, modest fashion.
“I mean it is always in the back of your mind and it would be nice,” said the righthander. “But if you focus on that, then you are not competing in the present and that’s what you need to do at this level. I am just focusing on being the best college athlete I can be.”