Updated: Nov 1, 2020
BY KATIE HINKLE | A&E EDITOR
Former LIU student and part of the baseball team, Justin Topa, made his major league debut for the Milwaukee Brewers this September.
Throughout his collegiate career, from 2010-13, he received many accolades that led him to being drafted in the big leagues in back-to-back years. The Cincinnati Reds drafted him in 2012 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, when he decided to take the offer from them in the 17th round. This was only the beginning of a long road of resiliency and determination for Topa.
Coming out of high school, LIU was the only school to offer him an opportunity to play baseball at the college level. Before he even had a chance to visit the campus, he committed to LIU and to playing baseball there.
Thinking back to his college career, Topa’s favorite memory was when his team made the conference tournament during his sophomore season. Getting to the tournament was a turning point in Justin’s career. Even though he had just suffered a season-ending injury right before the tournament, he recalls, “It was a huge milestone for not only the team, but it was big for me because I knew that making that transition, going from playing a position in high school and not really pitching and then going to college as a pitcher, I proved to myself that I can pitch and maybe have a future with this.”
Fast forward to 2013, and Topa began his professional career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Tampa, Florida. As a pitcher, he owned the mound for 118.1 innings and recorded 83 strikeouts in his first two seasons in the minor league ‘farm’ system.
He spent the entire 2015 and majority of 2016 seasons rehabbing after having his second Tommy John surgery, a common injury among pitchers competing at a high level. Despite that, Topa was eager to get back on the field in 2017 to have his first healthy season since 2014.
Unfortunately during Spring Training of 2017, Topa received the dreadful news that no minor league player wants to hear, “Getting that news that you’re being released is never something that you want to hear, especially in professional baseball.”
Topa was not blindsided by this news. Beyond coming off his injury, which could have played a role in his release, he noticed many shifts and changes happening within the Pirates organization. He said, “I was just looking forward to having a healthy year that following year in 2017. And going into Spring Training, I kind of had this gut feeling that something might be happening here… I kind of had this assumption that this might not be the organization that I’m going to be with for any extended period of time.”
After long talks with family and friends, Topa decided he wasn’t ready to give up the game that he had dedicated so much of his life to. He decided to play Independent Baseball (Indy Ball), which is a professional organization, but not affiliated with the MLB or MiLB.
Topa spent the 2017 season and the beginning of the 2018 season playing Indy Ball until he was picked up by the Texas Rangers. He signed with them in the summer of 2018 and played in their minor league system for about half a season. “I was extremely happy to just get back into affiliated ball… I went there, and went right into double A in Frisco, first time in double A so I was kind of just thrown into the fire,” Topa recalled of that 2018 season with the Rangers.
Unfortunately, Topa didn’t resign with the Rangers that season, but he was grateful to get experience with another organization under his belt. And it gave him that confidence he had been looking for, “There were flashes that I knew I could compete and get guys out at double- A and it really just proved to myself I can still do this type thing.” He trained like he would any other offseason, but once again, he was hoping to get picked up by another organization.
In March of 2019, Topa posted a video on Twitter of a recent pitching session where he was consistently throwing 94-97 MPH, “We literally made a Twitter video, posted it, and it got retweeted like a gazillion times and it got a ton of views and that’s initially how the Brewers got in touch with me.”
The video got over 45k views, caught the attention of a lot of people, and ultimately landed him a job with the Milwaukee Brewers just a couple of weeks after the video blew up.
Before he knew it, Topa was on a flight to begin a new season with a new team out in Arizona for Spring Training. He spent 80 innings on the mound in the minors for that 2019 season and recorded 82 strikeouts.
“It was unbelievable. It was great to be back in professional baseball.”
Fast forward to the moment everything Topa had worked so hard for over the years, the most important moment in his baseball career, his MLB debut with the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It was a whirlwind experience,” Topa recalled not being on the initial roster or player pool of guys that could potentially get called up during this unpredictable and shortened MLB season. Thus, he had been spending most of his days throwing into a net in his backyard for training considering the quarantine and shut down circumstances.
“Less than three months ago I was just throwing into a net in my backyard, without any inkling that I’m gonna play this year, I was a pending free agent going into the offseason. So I had no idea what the future held.”
Eventually, at the end of July, Topa got a call that he would be added to the player pool and headed for an alternate site to do some live batting practice and scrimmaging to stay in shape just in case spots opened up with the big league club. Although he was added to the player pool, he still knew that a lot had to happen on the business side of things in order to make his debut.
Later on, Topa got a call from the organization’s pitching coordinator telling him to be ready and to have his bags packed just in case, “So I didn’t know, he didn’t specify, I was like, ‘Is this a trade? Am I getting called up? What’s going on here?’”
The next morning on August 31, 2020, he got the call that every minor league baseball player hopes and dreams to get, “He called me that next morning and said, ‘You’re going to the big leagues, pack your stuff, you gotta be there at 1 o’clock. It was crazy.”
The first game Topa got called up for was against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which he referred to as, “Ironic.” Although he didn’t pitch, it was a special game for him considering he still had many friends playing for the Pirates in the big leagues.
The next day came and Topa had a feeling it would be his turn to get on the mound considering he didn’t make an appearance the night before against the Pirates.
“Second game I was there for was the Tigers and it was just crazy. I was sitting there in the bullpen, a little nerves… You know once you hear that phone call ring in the bullpen it was a surreal experience to hear your name and once I got on the mound it was just another game, which was good. The nerves kind of went away.”
During his official MLB debut, Topa pitched two innings with 2 hits, 2 earned runs, and 2 strikeouts.
Due to the Coronavirus situation, obviously Topa’s debut wasn’t the same as he had pictured it to be since he was a kid. Considering all the safety and social distancing guidelines put in place and the prospect of no fans, it was different than he had imagined to say the least. “It was an unbelievable experience, I wish that my family could’ve been there for sure, my family and friends, but I know that back home everybody was watching.”
Another aspect that makes Topa’s story even more inspirational is how he persevered through the passing of his mother in December of 2019. “Going back to the debut, just thinking about it, we, unfortunately, lost my mom in December… She was obviously my biggest fan and she loved baseball and we all know that she was looking down. We always say that she had the best seat in the house for my debut.”
Luckily, Topa has been able to use the loss of his mother as a driving force in his career and his life in general. “At the end of the day, I tell people now, you know, my worst days don’t even come close to what some people are going through… I kind of have a new outlook on life, you know enjoy everyday how it is… It’s been certainly motivation to get the most out of my career, but at the same time enjoy those small moments with family as much as you can.”
Just weeks after making his debut on September 30, Topa would be making his first career appearance in the MLB playoffs in LA. This was his first time playing professionally in California and had never experienced anything close to Dodger Stadium. Although there were no fans, Topa remembers feeling more nervous than he had been for his debut because of the intense atmosphere.
“I think I was more nervous then, than for my debut or any games this year during the regular season. Just cause the stage is you know, that much bigger. With no fans in the stands you know that hundreds of thousands of people are watching on TV. It’s the Dodgers who have a really good team and you know, they’ll probably be World Series contenders and have been in years past.”
There’s also the aspect of not getting starstruck while out on the field or mound that can be challenging for some rookies. Facing big name players that play on TV every night was a surreal experience for Topa.
“It was crazy, especially since it was against the Dodgers in LA. You have Walker Buehler out there, you got Bellinger, you know, all these guys you watch on TV…To get out there, especially in a game that Kershaw started for them, with his Hall of Fame career, just watching him go to work that day, that second game was nuts.”
In his single postseason appearance, Topa pitched two complete innings and only allowed one hit and one walk. He faced all the big names in their lineup like Justin Turner, Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger, and Chris Taylor and basically put their bats to rest while Topa had the ball. The Brewers, unfortunately, lost to the Dodgers 4-2 and closed the book on their 2020 season. The Dodgers went on to eventually win the 2020 World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Just to have that experience of being in the bullpen and hearing your name called you’re like, ‘Okay, this is really happening,’ and then to go in there and have the success that I did was unbelievable. Like I said you dream about pitching in the playoffs and in the World Series…And just to have that under my belt and to have that experience is something I’ll never forget.”
Taking the experience in Dodger Stadium is going to be monumental going forward for Topa. Playing in the postseason is every minor league players’ dream and to see that come to fruition meant everything to Topa.
He is still under contract with the Brewers and he’s eager to start training for the next season.
To those who aspire to be where Justin Topa is someday or those who battle with confidence, Topa says this;
“You’re gonna fail. The game is built around failure. You know, you hit .300, you’re getting out seven times. You have the deal with that… In general with sports you just have to continue to push along, chug along and have that mindset to get something out of every day. Continue to work hard and just have trust in your abilities… That’s the biggest thing, you have to have confidence in yourself, have confidence in your stuff, and focus on every pitch…The game doesn’t change just because there are 40,000 seats in the stadium… It’s the same game. You just have to have that focus. On and off the field that’s the biggest thing, you know, mentally get through every day and the grind of minor league baseball, even college baseball, and college sports in general.”