Still livin' the dream

Photo by Jim PetersRobbie Coursel of Michigan City pitches for the Gary SouthShore RailCats. He attended M.C. through his junior year before moving to Florida, where he finished high school and played in college. A 2016 Pittsburgh draft pick, Coursel has been with the RailCats since last August.

GARY — At the age of 17, Robbie Coursel was throwing a baseball 90 miles per hour and snapping off knee-buckling curveballs.

For as much as anybody in the higher levels of the game knew about it, the Michigan City junior may as well have been pitching in a black hole.

"I hadn't heard from a scout, I hadn't had a radar gun on me, I never talked to any colleges," Coursel said before Tuesday's Gary South Shore RailCats game at the U.S. Steel Yard. "I'd never heard from anybody. I didn't know how the process worked."

One meeting with Ralph Bufana, a long-time roving instructor in northwest Indiana, changed the entire trajectory of Coursel's career.

"The first day he saw me throw, he told me I had ability to pitch in the Major Leagues," Coursel said. "Everybody has certain talents, they just don't know how the industry works, to have somebody lead them in a direction they can go in."

Bufana was that person for Coursel, who took him up on the offer to go to Florida with him for his senior year.

"My grandfather (Robert O'Neil) has always been always the strongest supporter of my career," Coursel said. "He talked about phenomenal athletes in Michigan City that never panned out. What happened? I decided at a young age, no matter what's going on around you, everybody can make their own decisions. I'd known Ralph about three months at the time. It wasn't always easy, but it was necessary in the long run to become who I am today."

Coursel finished high school in Florida, spent two years at St. Petersburg College, then caught on with Florida Atlantic. Pittsburgh drafted him in the 26th round in 2016 and he pitched for the Pirates' Rookie League affiliate in Bristol that year. He left the organization for personal reasons in the spring of 2017 and was out of baseball for a period during which he worked for the La Porte County Sheriff's Department for about six months.

"It was a tremendous experience," he said.

Last spring, Coursel signed his first Independent Professional Baseball League contract with the RailCats on August 13.

"Robbie's an interesting case for us," manager Greg Tagert said. "Like a lot of our players we sign, his potential is maybe more suited to the Frontier League, but we're always looking for guys with high ceilings. His arm no doubt has gotten him some opportunities. The talent level is huge. He has a chance to be very, very good. We've seen it. The highs and lows are just huge. He's got the talent to compete. It's been a great experience for him so far. He's a wonderful young man."

After posting a 9.45 earned run average in five relief outings last season, Coursel made the team out of the spring this year.

"For his career, I think he projects best as a starter," Tagert said. "I trust my pitching coach (Alain Quijano) and he really felt with his strength, because he's so physically fit, his preparation is meticulous, he has the attributes we look for in a starting pitcher that we think anybody should. We want to make sure he's in the best situation. He can grow in that rotation. I really feel like he has a good career ahead of him."

The apex so far for Coursel was five shutout innings and his first professional win as a starter against defending champion Kansas City. That gem was followed by two clunkers in which he was tagged for 13 runs in just 3 2/3 innings, prompting Tagert to return Coursel to the bullpen for a period. He pitched 2 1/3 innings of relief in Tuesday's game against Winnipeg, allowing an unearned run.

"I'm young, I'm hungry, I'm as healthy as I can be, I'm executing my pitches as good as ever," Coursel said. "I feel I'm throwing the best I ever have in my career. My fastball's in the 90s (miles per hour), my breaking ball is 80, I'm throwing my changeup for strikes more. I have a two-seam. That's four pitches, now it's a matter of mastering it, understanding the mindset of hitters. It's a tough game. They seem to be cornering the four-seamer down and away."

It'll take a few more rough outings to faze Coursel.

"I deal with adversity very well," he said. "I wouldn't be here right now, coming from Michigan City, if I wasn't. I'm comfortable with it. I like the level of competition. I believe in what's going on here. I'm becoming a part of the whole belief system, what they do, trying to win games. That's the tradition here. It's just a matter of getting better every day."

Like most 25-year-olds, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-hander has big-league ambitions, but he is absolutely content in the moment.

"I've reached heights I never could've perceived happening," he said. "Baseball is my career. I've always been very passionate about the game. It's been my life pretty much forever. It's where I've had the most impact on others. It comes pretty naturally to me. I've fit right in anywhere I've been. It just seemed like it could provide a more fulfilling life, for myself and those around me, and I just stuck with it. Opportunities have presented themselves because I have a gift to play this game. It's a whole new life I never would've had except for baseball."

Coursel lives in Michigan City with his fiancee and high school sweetheart Benea Brown.

"This works out perfect for me," Coursel said. "I'm in a good place to get better. You can always think of things you don't have. I get to play baseball for a living. I could easily be in an affiliate organization, Double A, I don't know where. I'm so fortunate to be able to do it right here. It's a short commute, a straight shot on (U.S.) 12. I get to go home every night. It's very rewarding. (Brown) believes in me. My family believes in me, the area, the city believes in me. I have a great support system. I've always wanted to make them proud, make the city proud. To me, it's a dream."

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