BELLVILLE — A.J. Blubaugh is living the dream.
Playing professional baseball has always been the dream, even when he was a 5-foot-3, 95-pound freshman at Clear Fork High School.
A 2019 Clear Fork graduate, Blubaugh was selected by the Houston Astros in the seventh round of the Major League Baseball draft Monday afternoon. The hard-throwing right-hander out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was taken with the 223rd overall pick.
“It was unbelievable,” said Blubaugh, who watched the draft from home with his family. “Our screen was a little delayed, but I got a call from my agent to congratulate me and then I got a call from the Astros just as the pick came up on our screen.
“To get that call and then see it on the screen, it all kind of hit me at once.”
It was a call Blubaugh always expected to receive, even if others didn’t. He had more than a few doubters when he would share his ambition early in his career.
“People have always asked me if I really thought I could play pro baseball and I’ve always told them, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ ” Blubaugh said. “Of course, that raised a few eyebrows when I was barely 5 feet tall and didn’t even weigh 100 pounds as a freshman.”
The undersized Blubaugh started as a freshman on Clear Fork’s varsity basketball team during the 2015-16 season. He was the junior varsity shortstop that spring, when the varsity team made a run to the Division III state semifinals.
The Colts returned to the Final Four the following spring with Blubaugh as the starting left fielder. He had one of Clear Fork’s four hits in a 2-1 state semifinal loss to eventual Division III titlist Warren Champion.
By the time he was a senior, Blubaugh was a key contributor on three Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference championship teams. He was the leading receiver on the 2018 football team that reached the regional championship game and averaged 12.9 points a game on a basketball team that went 19-5.
The Colts won the MOAC baseball crown in the spring of 2019. Blubaugh, who was primarily a catcher as a junior, was the team’s top pitcher and shortstop and batted. 396.
“He played dang near every position on the baseball field during his high school career,” said Clear Fork baseball coach Joe Staab, who coached Blubaugh during his final two seasons. “As a junior, he pitched only a handful of innings.”
Even as Blubaugh continued to grow and develop, college scouts weren’t beating down the door. He received only one Division I offer — from Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
His freshman year coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and he appeared in only three games before the season was shut down. As a second-year freshman in 2021 — players were granted an extra year of eligibility because of the lost 2020 season — Blubaugh emerged as the Horizon League’s top reliever. In 19 appearances spanning 27.1 innings, he was 2-1 with eight saves and a 2.63 earned run average. He struck out 37 and walked just 14.
He repeated as the Horizon League’s Relief Pitcher of the Year this spring, going 3-3 with six saves and a 3.25 ERA in 52.2 innings of work. He struck out 51 and walked 16.
Moreover, the once-scrawny 5-foot-3, 95-pounder from the Valley had sprouted into a 6-foot-3, 190-pound flame-thrower equipped with a mid-90s fastball to go with a curveball, slider and changeup.
His performance at Milwaukee earned him a coveted spot in the prestigious Cape Cod League earlier this summer. He was the closer for the Orleans Firebirds, picking up a team-best four saves. He appeared in eight games and surrendered just two hits against some of the top collegiate hitters in the country. He struck out 13 and did not walk a batter or surrender a run in 9.1 innings of work.
“It was unbelievable,” Blubaugh said of his month in the Cape. “The fact that I was able to have some success against some of the best players in the country, it really helped my draft stock.
“To go to the Cape and face those kind of hitters and still be successful, it was really awesome.”
Blubaugh said he will likely sign with the Astros and forego his final seasons of college eligibility. If he does sign a contract, he will be the first Clear Fork product to play pro baseball since 2010 graduate Travis Hissong.
Another hard-throwing right-hander, Hissong led the Colts to a Division III state championship before pitching collegiately at Wright State. He signed with the Yankees as an undrafted free agent and eventually reached Class AA before his career ended.
“I grew up watching Travis Hissong. I saw him pitch in the state championship game,” Blubaugh said. “To even be mentioned with him is an honor.”
While he isn’t yet sure what the remainder of the summer will look like, Blubaugh can’t wait to begin the next chapter of his career. Baseball reorganized its minor league system in 2021, eliminating the short-season Class A leagues that most newly-drafted players reported to.
He will likely report to Houston’s Rookie League affiliate at the parent club’s spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“I’m not sure how it all works. I’m guessing after my physical I’ll start a training camp where they can get a feel for me,” Blubaugh said. “After that, it’s up to the organization as to where I go and what they have me do.”
Wherever Blubaugh ends up, Staab thinks he will continue to climb the minor league ladder.
“A.J. has always been the underdog. He’s had to work for everything he’s ever had,” Staab said. “I believe he has everything he needs to keep progressing. This couldn’t happen to a better kid.
“He does everything the right way and we couldn’t be any happier for him.”