Pitcher Justin Hirschberg Is Eager to Start His Senior Baseball Season at Occidental College
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Just like a ball he throws by opposing hitters, college has gone by like a blur to Justin Hirschberg. Only three years ago he was wearing blue and white while pitching Palisades High’s baseball team to the City Division I playoffs. Now the crafty left-hander is working hard to be ready for what he hopes will be a superb senior season at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.
“I chose Oxy initially because it was my dream to play college baseball,” Hirschberg says. “Oxy gave me that opportunity to play while also offering a great education in a great location. So far it’s lived up to my expectations because I can focus on baseball and on my education without sacrificing either one.”
Making the jump from high school to college is an awakening for any athlete, but for Hirschberg academics were tougher than anything he faced on the field.
“The hardest transition for me was the academic side,” he said. “The expectations in the classroom are much greater in college and the workload is far more than high school. The time commitment for baseball is also a lot in college, but my time playing baseball at Pali prepared me for that type of work and commitment.”
Hirschberg was a workhorse on the hill as a senior at Palisades. The Dolphins won seven of the 11 games in which he pitched (he had four shutouts) and he led the staff in pitches thrown (864). He made the All-Western League first team and All-City second team as a senior and won an Exceptional Athlete Award at the school’s Senior Awards Banquet. One game sticks out as his favorite at Palisades.
“I will always remember our play-in [playoff] game at Marshall my junior year,” he recalls. “It started around 12 at their place and they had about a thousand kids come out during their lunch break to heckle us, but we came out on top 1-0. Head coach [Mike] Voelkel used to always hold us accountable for our actions, even if we won, which has definitely helped me mature as a person and learn how to take accountability. He instilled in us the importance of working as a team and that’s one of our biggest mottos at Oxy.”
During his first two years in college, Hirschberg came back to Palisades to watch a playoff game or two but last summer he went with some friends and past teammates to Dodger Stadium to watch his alma mater play Birmingham for the City Open championship.
“Although we never had the opportunity to play there while I was at Pali it was awesome watching my old school play at a place like that,” he says.
Proud as he was being a Dolphin, Hirschberg was eager to be a Tiger and he committed early.
“I’ve enjoyed my first three years here at Oxy and have been able to build friendships with kids and teammates that I expect to last a long time,” he says. “My love for the game of baseball has continued to grow and I’m excited to keep playing for as long as I have left. I’ve been a mix so far starting games and relieving but the game that sticks out the most to me was my sophomore year when we were playing for a playoff spot against Cal Lutheran (the 2017 Division III National Champion). I started and threw seven scoreless innings in what was practically a must win game. As for my repertoire I haven’t added anything but I’ve taken the past few years to work on improving the three pitches I throw: fastball, curveball and change up. My ‘out’ pitch is still my change up low and away.”
Hirschberg remembers being a wide-eyed freshman and seeing a familiar face in the other dugout in a three-game series in April.
“A lot of guys in my conference are kids I played travel ball with, but the only Pali alum I’ve played against is Cade Hulse, who went to Pomona-Pitzer,” he says. “I didn’t get to face him that series, but I remember him hitting a tank to left field at our park against our ace.”
Hulse, then a senior first baseman for the Sagehens, had a home run and two RBIs to lead Pomona-Pitzer to victory in the opener but Occidental rallied to sweep a doubleheader the next day.
Hirschberg has yet to make it back to George Robert Field for Palisades’ alumni game but that is on his to-do list.
“The alumni game has fallen during the beginning of our season the past few years so I haven’t been able to make it yet,” he says. “When I graduate Oxy I definitely plan on coming back to pitch against my former team.”
A kinesiology major, he made three apperances as a junior , posting a 1.80 ERA in five innings. On March 1 at Redlands he pitched three innings with four strikeouts, his most at the collegiate level.
“I didn’t realize it until now, but my career high at Oxy is only four strikeouts,” Hirschberg says. “I remember my senior year at Pali I had 12 strikeouts one game but these college players are a lot harder to strike out so as a pitcher I have to find other ways to get hitters out, especially since I don’t blow it by these guys.”
Fundamentals are paramount at the prep level, but Hirschberg has observed that in college there is less tampering with technique.
“Coaching is different in college because they let players use their own style when it comes to mechanics and hitting approach, then they instruct when necessary,” he explains. “College players tend to have a general feel for what works best for them, so the coaches don’t make big changes unless it’s absolutely necessary. Our pitching coach is extremely knowledgeable about the game. He’s always two steps ahead when he calls pitches and it makes any pitchers’ job 10 times easier when we’re on the mound.”
At the time the 2020 season was canceled due to coronarvirus the Tigers were 9-6 overall, 3-0 in conference play and were on a four-game winning streak.
“Before Corona I thought we had a real shot at winning our conference,” Hirschberg says. “Even looking ahead to next year I think we have a great shot at competing for the SCIAC championship.”
So what is a typical day like for him on campus?
“I’m usually out my door at 5:45 a.m. for our team lift at 6,” he says. “After our workout we eat breakfast as a team, then we have class in the morning or early afternoon. After class we have practice for two to three hours and after that I’ll usually grab some dinner and then go to the library to get my schoolwork done. The general workload at Oxy is four classes per semester, so I try to space it out where I only take two or three per day, including my labs with my STEM classes. For my senior year I’ll be renting a house near campus with seven of my friends. Since we all got sent home our coaches have put it on us to get our work in individually. Without access to a gym, I’ll either go to UCLA to run the stairs or I’ll work out at my house, where I filled my baseball bag up with textbooks to get a 50-pound weight I can use for a variety of exercises. It’s been a challenge but with all this free time it’s easy to set aside time every day to continue getting stronger.”
Since the spring semester ended Hirschberg has been working at a supermarket and has picked up an internship at a functional neurology clinic in Santa Barbara. His older brother Garrett graduated from Nevada-Reno last year and got a job as a Production Assistant at Fox Sports.
“My plan for after I graduate is still in the air, but I do want to do something in the medical field helping people, most likely pursuing a career in sports medicine,” adds Hirschberg, who went to Fairburn Elementary and Paul Revere Middle School before Pali High. “I didn’t play in the PPBA but I did play at West LA Little League and until I was about 13 I also played soccer and basketball. It was a combination of my wanting to focus on baseball and me not being very good at the other sports that made me decide only to play baseball after that.”
He made a wise choice.
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