St. Louis Cardinals

July 22, 2014

Hometown fans pack Busch Stadium for return of Highland's Odorizzi

Highland was well represented Tuesday night at Busch Stadium when one of its own was front and center.

Jake Odorizzi, a 2008 graduate of Highland High School, allowed two runs on five hits and struck out eight in 5 2/3 innings as the Tampa Bay Rays grabbed a 6-2 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. Odorizzi doffed his cap to his fans as he exited the game.

It was Odorizzi's second career start against the Cardinals, but his first at Busch Stadium. He threw 106 pitches, 65 for strikes.

As many as 500 family members, friends and well-wishers were seated in every nook and cranny at the sold-out ballpark.

They saw Odorizzi allow a leadoff home run to Matt Carpenter in the first inning and a one-out homer to Matt Holliday in the sixth.

In between, they watched Odorizzi collect his first career RBI on a squeeze bunt in the second against Adam Wainwright and saw him coax a walk from Wainwright in a five-run fifth that gave the Rays a 6-1 lead.

The second-inning at-bat Odorizzi was his first since his senior season at Highland when he guided the Bulldogs to a 36-4 record and the Class 3A state championship.

"It's just really an unbelievable feeling," said Mike Odorizzi, 54, Jake's father, from behind the Rays dugout on the third-base side. "It's something we've thought about for a long time, and it's finally here. I don't know what I'm more nervous about, to watch him pitch or to actually watch him hit for the first time in six years. We'll see if he makes contact. I'm hoping."

Juli Odorizzi, Jake's mother, said watching Jake pitch in Busch Stadium didn't invoke drastically different emotions than when he was at Highland.

"I'm OK. I'm holding it together, but I'm a bit nervous," she said. "I always have been since Day 1 when he pitched. I used to pace. Now I can at least sit down in a seat. I'll manage."

Sitting near the Odorizzis were longtime friends Barry and Kathy Harris, residents of Alhambra. The Harris' daughter, Stephanie, has been a friend of Jake's since they played T-ball together about 20 years ago.

"I'm very excited for them," Kathy Harris, 50, said of Mike and Juli Odorizzi. "I'm sure they have to be so nervous. I'm nervous.

"(Jake) has been Mr. Baseball his whole life. He's very driven. He just loved the game and always said that he wanted to be a major-league baseball player."

Barry Harris has known Mike Odorizzi for many years and the two have shared many a moment on metro-east softball fields.

"Seeing our kids grow up together is very cool, and this is very exciting," said Harris, 58, a Highland High graduate. "This couldn't be any better unless he was playing for the Cardinals."

For every parent, seeing a child realize a dream is one of life's greatest satisfactions. Mike Odorizzi said he remembers Jake declaring he wanted to be a big-leaguer "a long time ago."

"I mean, he was a little kid --a little kid," Mike Odorizzi said. "As a parent, you're like, 'OK, yeah, sure, you'll do all right.' But he actually did it. I give him a lot of credit. He worked hard and got where he needed to be."

Juli Odorizzi said: "I'm just proud that he actually made it. He said this was what he wanted to do. He went after his dream, and by golly, he did it. We always thought he would, but everybody thinks their kid's good. He did what he said he was going to do."

Friends of Jake Odorizzi maintain fame and notoriety have not changed his constitution. For Mike and Juli Odorizzi, that's perhaps the biggest compliment they can hear about their son.

"I don't think he's changed too much as far as his attitude or anything," Mike Odorizzi said. "He's basically the same kid: happy-go-lucky, kind of quiet. He loves playing; he doesn't care where as long as he gets a chance."

Joe Duncan, who graduated from Highland in the spring and will play the next four years at Eastern Illinois University, became an Odorizzi fan in 2008. Duncan was in a seat in back of the Cardinals bullpen Tuesday.

"It's pretty sweet," Duncan said. "I watched him on their state run in his senior year. It's weird to see him pitching against my favorite team. It really motivates you because he's from Highland, and anything is possible if you keep working hard."

Duncan and a few of his friends -- along with Highland coach Joel Hawkins --watched Odorizzi warm up a few minutes before the game. They were there when Odorizzi arrived, and Duncan said Odorizzi "smiled up at us."

"My mom (Margie) taught him in school, so I guess he knows me," said Duncan, whose dad, Bill, works with Odorizzi's dad for the city of Highland.

Brant Frey, 44, of nearby Pocahontas, shares season tickets with a friend. Fortunately for Frey, he had the tickets Tuesday.

"Everybody knows Jake from when he was little," said Frey, who became acquainted with the Odorizzis during Jake's senior season. "It's a big day. I want him to do well. He's handling himself so well. He's starting to prove himself."

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 239-2665. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMWilhelm.

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