Nevada closer Blane Abeyta stands tall on the mound, but his idol watches him pitch from above.
Blane’s grandfather, Gilbert, was with him when he signed his national letter of intent to join the baseball team at the University of Nevada, Reno. Gilbert passed away on Jan. 1, 2019 before the season began.
Abeyta enters every outing calm and composed, knowing his grandfather is by his side.
“I wish I could see him in the stands watching me play,” he said. “He was my idol. He’s watched every game of mine since I was little. It’s hard not having him here with me, but I know he’s watching me up there so I want to make him proud.”
Abeyta has made the most of each appearance thus far. The junior right-hander earned his first two career saves with the Wolf Pack against California Baptist on March 6-7, securing Nevada’s first two wins of the season.
He is one of 11 junior college transfers making their Nevada debut. Abeyta played two seasons at Modesto Junior College from 2018-19. The Modesto, Calif. native is adjusting to his new surroundings on the Division-1 stage.
“This is a completely different environment from junior college,” he said. “I love every guy here and there are many ways to learn from them. I just need to keep learning and growing each day.”
Abeyta comes equipped with a low-80s slider and a low-70s curveball. But his velocity-packed fastball is a swing-and-miss weapon in his arsenal. It ranges between 90-93 and has reached 94 mph this season, forcing opposing batters to adjust on the fly.
The 6-foot-3 Abeyta lowered his ERA to 3.86 on the year. He is fourth on the team with 11 strikeouts in six appearances.
“I can throw the ball pretty hard and it’s just translated,” he chuckled. “I’ve been able to focus on adding to my velocity and it’s helped my off-speed stuff so it’s been an asset of mine.”
Along with his dominant repertoire on the mound, Abeyta’s work ethic and strive for improvement has remained a constant throughout the year. It also has captured the attention of head coach T.J. Bruce.
“We have a lot of experienced players out there and he’s one of them,” Bruce said. “He’s battled and learned what we’re about as a team, I’ve been impressed with how much he’s grown in such a short amount of time.”
Before his debut on the mound with the Wolf Pack, Abeyta was a standout catcher at Ceres High School. He batted .324 with five home runs, 54 RBIs and a .444 on-base percentage over two seasons with the Bulldogs. He also was named first-team All-League and Most Valuable Player his senior year.
Abeyta was in for quite a change when he arrived at Modesto Junior College. The catcher position was filled to the brim, forcing him to try out in a bullpen session. He flashed his skills on the hill and made a permanent switch soon after.
“Going into junior college, that position was filled up so I had to do something,” he said. “Coach (Zeb Brayton) told me to go throw in the bullpen and I was sitting in the high 80s. All of a sudden, I was their closer and pitched well.”
In his freshman season, Abeyta sported a 1-0 record with five saves, 22 strikeouts and a 1.62 ERA in 16.2 innings. He followed it up with a 5-4 record and 4.55 ERA in 17 appearances—including 10 starts—in 65.1 innings during his sophomore campaign.
Despite several obstacles throughout his junior college career, Abeyta’s experience behind the plate helped him achieve his dream of playing D-1 baseball.
“Everything took off from there and it’s an honor to be here,” he said. “I think a big part of it was catching. I know how to call a game from a pitcher’s standpoint because I understand how hitters focus in the box. So that helps me know what I’m positioned and looking for on the mound.”
Abeyta has transitioned to the mound and is serving as the closer with the Wolf Pack. His potential grows with each new appearance on the mound.
Nevada has stumbled during the 2020 season, but Abeyta will be in a position to seal wins for the Pack as they look to rebound from a slow start. He has plenty of support from above.
“We’ve got a lot of JUCO guys like myself who know how to play,” he said. “Some of those qualities we bring can help over the course of a season…There are a lot of guys on this team who know how to win and I just want to be a part of it.”
Isaiah Burrows can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SagebrushSports.