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Self-confidence gives pitcher his strength

Intimidation is not a feeling Patrick Christensen recognizes. He never, ever allows himself to believe he is the underdog.

These might make great qualities for a big-game hunter or a high-wire circus performer. They’re also not bad for a high school sophomore pitching against players two and three years older than him.

Christensen, a La Jolla High School right-hander, has been fearless in his debut season on the Vikings’ varsity squad this year and has become the team’s best pitcher and one of the top hurlers in the county.

“I went out to give him the ball in our second game of the year, when we were facing Francis Parker, which was ranked eighth in the county, and I said ‘Are you nervous yet?’ and he told me ‘I don’t get nervous,’ ” coach Gary Frank said. “I told him, ‘You’re a sophomore on the varsity, pitching against one of the area’s best teams, and you’re basically trying out for the team for the rest of the year, and you’re not nervous?’ He just said, ‘No, I’m not nervous.’ And then he went out and held them to one run in five innings and got the win.”

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Since that impressive beginning, very little has changed.

Christensen owns a 6-1 record and a 1.38 earned-run average, and in 40 innings has struck out 38 batters. In Western League play, the numbers are even better: 2-0 with a 0.98 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 14 innings. His resounding success has been a large part of the Vikings’ 18-7 record and 6-3 league mark through May 6, their best start since they won a CIF-San Diego division championship in 2000.

“I was definitely nervous when I first started, but once you get into a groove, it goes away,” Christensen said. “I feel much more confident when I go out there now than I did early in the season. I think that’s because I’ve done it for a good amount of time now and feel comfortable doing it.”

Christensen pitched well for La Jolla’s junior varsity team last year, and during the Vikings’ informal winter ball season he worked with the varsity group. He began the season with the varsity squad and has looked like he deserved the opportunity.

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That has opened plenty of eyes around the Western League and beyond, though it hasn’t completely stunned those who know Christensen.

“I’m not surprised at how he’s doing, but I’m surprised he’s doing it already,” Frank said. “We watched him last year as a freshman, and we knew he was going to be something special, but we didn’t anticipate him dominating on the varsity level like he has this year.

“He’s mature beyond his age when he gets on the mound. We had some injuries early in the year, so we kind of threw him right into it. He pitched in some big games right away, and he never got nervous.”

Aside from Christensen’s mental approach, he also possesses great physical tools. At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds and growing, he has the build of a prototypical pitcher. For his age, his command of the strike zone, both with his fastball - which reaches 84 miles per hour according to Frank - and curveball is highly advanced.

“I think (his control at his age) is rare,” Frank said. “To be able to throw both pitches to both sides of the plate at will is a pretty rare commodity for a sophomore competing at this level.”

Christensen doesn’t play any other sports, and aside from baseball and school - he said he has a 4.1 grade-point average - he has few other hobbies to fill his time, so he is focused on becoming the best pitcher he can be.

He plans to play on a travel team this summer and hopefully compete in the Junior Olympics.

“I’m going to try really hard this summer to get better, and I have plenty of time to practice,” he said. “I figure if I’m doing well as a sophomore, then I can get better and better and hopefully be very good when I’m a junior and a senior.”

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