Josh Fleming entered Spring Training ready to prove he deserved a shot in Double-A.
"My mentality was to go in and basically make them put me up there," Fleming said.
The right mind-set paid off for the left-hander. When he learned he would open 2019 with the Montgomery Biscuits in the Southern League, the Tampa Bay Rays prospect grabbed his phone.
"I texted my parents right away and texted my fiancée and all of my friends," Fleming said. "It was a really cool feeling."
Fleming's rise in the sport is interesting. He didn't play in a big-time college program. He went to Webster University, an NCAA Division III school in Missouri. The dream of one day being a pro seemed unlikely.
But he made quite an impression as a freshman. In fact, his coach told him he had a shot to pitch at the next level.
"When he told me he thought I could make a career out of it, everything changed," Fleming said. "I was working way harder than I ever have before and took everything more seriously."
Fate dealt Fleming a cruel twist during his sophomore season. He missed the first half of the year with soreness in his elbow and started just six games. The diagnosis was a low-grade UCL sprain. It was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.
"I knew it was kind of a risk, but I knew it was a quicker recovery than the bad surgery I don't want to mention," said Fleming, referring to Tommy John. "I stuck with it and it worked out. In the end, it was a smart choice."
He came back stronger than ever in 2017, dominating the competition at the D-III level during a junior year in which he was nearly unhittable. He went 8-1, sported a 0.68 ERA, struck out 115 and walked 12, earning pitcher of the year honors from D3baseball.com.
"It was a freak year. I don't know how else to describe it," Fleming said. "I knew I was good. I knew I could get anyone out. It was one of those years where everything seemed to click."
That led to a big moment on Draft day. He held a party, inviting friends and family. He became the first Gorloks player ever taken in the MLB Draft when the Rays selecting him in the fifth round.
"I got a call from my agent late in the fourth round and he told me that he thinks the Rays are going to take me and to be ready," Fleming said. "Sure enough, they did. It was awesome. It was one of the best feelings I've ever had."
A fierce competitor who has never feared hard work, Fleming has made the most of his opportunities. He went 9-4 in 2018, splitting time between Class A Bowling Green and Class A Advanced Charlotte, and is 4-2 in seven games with the Biscuits. In 43 1/3 innings, he's allowed 13 earned runs on 43 hits while striking out five or more five times.
"His first four or five starts were fabulous, just working ahead in the count. He hit the ground in Double-A like he belonged here and kept pitching like it," Montgomery pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein said. "The last couple have been more of a challenge, but he continues to compete. He doesn't shy away from challenging hitters and making them earn what they get."
Fleming knows teams have become more familiar with him now that he's facing many of them a second time and has worked a great deal on his curveball and slider. Still, he hasn't changed the way he attacks hitters.
"My mentality is, go out there, attack the hitters, pound the strike zone, make them hit it. Nothing has changed there," Fleming said.
Lichtenstein sees a pitcher who has an opportunity to one day reach the Major League level if his changeup can become a consistent, effective second pitch, forcing hitters away from hunting his fastball. The way Fleming handles pressure on the hill should also serve him well.
"He knows he's good. He has confidence. And when things get chaotic, I see a look in his eyes, a little different fire to him," Lichtenstein said. "He has really good focus when things get chaotic, which is beautiful to see, because if you are going to pitch at a higher level, when things get chaotic, you have to be able to execute your pitches and get hitters out with guys on base."
Fleming, who's fanned 37 batters and walked five this season, has every reason to believe he'll be a Major Leaguer. Confident yet down to earth -- he still goes back to Webster in the offseason to help out players -- he attacks his goals the way he attacks hitters on game day.
"If I keep having strong outings like I do now, keep throwing strikes and attacking guys, I can get there," Fleming said. "It would be a dream come true. It's always been a goal of mine. If I get there, it would be the coolest thing ever."
Video: Biscuits' Fleming fans Hinojosa
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.