At least one Major League Baseball player calls Wesley Chapel home during the offseason.
With pleasant weather and local ties, it’s a no-brainer for St. Louis Cardinals pitcher John Gant.
After all, the 26-year-old Gant spent half his childhood being raised in the area — moving there with his family from Savannah, Georgia, when he was 11 years old.
The major leaguer has been back in town since December, following the conclusion of the 2018 season.
He’s used the downtime to catch up with family and some old friends from Wiregrass Ranch High School, where he starred on the varsity baseball team all four years (2008-2011) before being selected by the New York Mets in the 21st round of the 2011 MLB Draft.
He’s also made a point to stay in general shape in advance of the 2019 season. He works out with local trainer BB Roberts about once a week, splitting time between old high school stomping grounds and the Seven Oaks clubhouse fitness center.
Gant, surprisingly, is able to mosey about town in relative anonymity, both in Wesley Chapel and St. Louis.
“Nobody really recognizes me at all,” Gant said in a recent interview with The Laker/Lutz News.
And, he likes it that way. “I’m kind of an undercover, under-the-radar type guy,” Gant said.
In baseball circles, however, Gant is anything but under the radar.
The 6-foot-4 righthander, who sports a five-pitch arsenal (sinker, changeup, four-seam fastball, curveball, slider), will embark on his fourth MLB season when pitchers and catchers report for spring training in February.
There, he’ll look to build off last year’s breakout campaign in which he posted a 3.47 earned run average and 95 strikeouts in 114 innings pitched, with a record of 7-6 in 26 appearances (including 19 starts).
While Gant’s efforts weren’t enough to help the Cardinals reach the playoffs, he was front-and-center at times throughout the season.
He pitched a seven-inning, one-hit shutout gem on June 26 against the Cleveland Indians that happened to be the historic franchise’s 10,000th victory as a member of the National League.
He made national headlines at the plate, too.
Gant’s first two hits in his MLB career — and only two hits thus far — are home runs.
According to MLB.com, Gant is believed to the only player in Major League history to hit at least two home runs while never having reached base safely by any other means.
The first dinger came on Aug. 14 in a home game against the Washington Nationals.
Gant entered the game 0 for 30 in hitting for his career before he drove a 1-1 pitch from Gio Gonzalez (who had never allowed a home run to an opposing pitcher) over the left field wall in the second inning — a two-run shot that measured 398 feet.
“Hitting that first home run was pretty cool,” Gant said. “That was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Gant also drew notoriety for his unconventional, yet impactful Vulcan changeup — gripping the ball between the middle and ring fingers, garnering its name from the Vulcan salute used by Spock in the Star Trek series.
“Some people think it’s weird; some people think it’s normal,” Gant said of the pitch.
“You’ve got to be able to change speeds as a pitcher or else you probably aren’t going to have too much success at all, really,” he said.
Gant has had a circuitous route to baseball’s highest level.
Since being a mid-round draft pick out of high school, Gant toiled in the minors for five years before making his debut in 2016 with the Atlanta Braves. He’s also battled injuries and has been traded twice — from the Mets to the Braves, then to the Cardinals.
After finally coming into his own this past season, Gant is self-assured he has staying power in the big leagues, for many years to come.
Said Gant, “I’m calm and confident to play at that level, and I feel like that’s where I belong. It definitely took some settling in, but I feel settled and comfortable.”
And, he certainly wouldn’t mind staying long-term with his current ball club.
“I think I’m in the right place now, with the Cardinals. I’m happy where I’m at. I really want to stay with this group of guys and this organization,” Gant said.
Aside from maybe hitting a few more dingers, Gant’s chief focus is on the mound — working to improve his control to pare down the 57 walks he allowed in 2018, one of the few blemishes on his resume last season.
“I’m going to try to hone in on that strike zone a little better,” Gant said. “Throw some more strikes. Fill up the zone. And, just work hard. Try to win some baseball games for this ball club.”
Meanwhile, those in tune with the sports scene in Pasco County may know of another John Gant — head coach of the Wiregrass Ranch varsity girls basketball team, who’s won at least 20 games every year but one since being hired in 2011.
Well, it’s the pro ballplayer’s father.
The younger Gant described his father as “very” influential toward his success in professional baseball — mentoring him to excel in academics and athletics.
“He’s always pushing me in doing everything I’ve done,” Gant said. “He’s always told me, ‘If you do something, do it right.’”
Likewise, his father’s coaching achievements over the past decade don’t come as a surprise to the major leaguer.
“He works hard at his craft, and he’s good at it,” Gant said. “Just behind the scenes, he spent so much time on it, just watching video and just making sure he has everything that he wants and all the tools are there, and he’s using them all. He just goes out there and wins games.”
Like father, like son.
Q-and-A with St. Louis Cardinals pitcher John Gant
On playing baseball at Wiregrass Ranch High School: “It was a blast. I had a lot of fun, and it kind of led me to where I am now.”
On his emergence as an upperclassman at Wiregrass Ranch that drew attention from pro baseball scouts: “Just (got) bigger and stronger. Grew into my body a little more and started to throw a little harder. That’s really it.”
On when he realized he might have a chance to play baseball professionally: “I was by no means a Little League prodigy or a child prospect or anything like that. I think things kind of started to click for me when I was probably a junior or senior in high school, and I started getting some college attention. I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Hey I’m going to be a big league pitcher,’ obviously, but we knew that I was going to go play baseball in college, and then if I had success there, then maybe a role at the professional level. But, there was never a real moment where I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this’ before I was drafted or anything like that.’”
On playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the MLB’s most revered and historic organizations: “It definitely means a lot to be able to put on that jersey and all the history that comes with it, and, everything that the St. Louis Cardinals have accomplished throughout the years and are still accomplishing. It’s pretty unreal the success they’ve had and the pride that they have in all their successes, and, just how they care about people’s attitudes and people’s character is very important. …I think they’re really going about their business the right way.”
On his favorite player growing up: “I wouldn’t say I modeled my game after this person in any way, but as a kid I was a pretty big (Atlanta) Braves fan and my favorite player was the catcher, Javy Lopez.”
On the best hitter he’s gone up against: “I guess, maybe my rookie year in 2016, facing Big Papi (Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz) at Fenway Park was a pretty cool moment.”
On his career options if he wasn’t playing professional baseball: “Hard to say. I’ve never really seen myself coaching. I was going to school to be an athletic trainer. Now seeing all the behind-the-scenes things that they’re responsible for, I don’t think that I’d really like to do that. Honestly, I’d probably be working some type of manual labor job somewhere — outside, hard work with my hands, getting dirty every day.”
Published January 9, 2019