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06/22/08 2:14 PM ET

Hunter maneuvers from mat to mound

Disciplined judo champion developing at Double-A Frisco

FRISCO, Texas -- You wouldn't guess it to see Tommy Hunter now. Standing a stout 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds in his Frisco RoughRiders uniform, Hunter, in his youth, was a two-time junior Olympic judo champion.

Hunter's judo career began as a birthday present from his grandmother when he was 5. It turned into a gift that has kept on giving, even after Hunter won back-to-back Junior Olympic judo championships when he was 11 and 12 years old.

Although the armbar maneuvers he learned in judo no longer come into play now that he's a Minor League pitcher, judo helped him build the mental toughness he needs when he toes the rubber.

"It really taught me to keep my cool," Hunter said. "You really have to be in control, kind of like when you're out on the mound. It's you versus one guy -- one-on-one. And I'm pretty flexible for being as big as I am. I'm probably the most flexible person on this team, hands down."

With his judo mentality, Hunter is able to pitch with an attitude that matches his intimidating frame. With his flexibility, he's more athletic than most pitchers his size. However, it took more than a background in judo to get where Hunter is now. He was also a great amateur pitcher.

Hunter was drafted out of high school in the 18th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft by Tampa Bay, but decided instead to play college ball at Alabama. There, he was named freshman second-team All-American in 2006, and multiple publications tabbed him a preseason All-American his sophomore year.

As a Draft-eligible sophomore, Hunter led the Crimson Tide with seven victories, 107 innings pitched and 96 strikeouts, to go along with his 3.87 ERA. But in between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Hunter represented his country on the 2006 USA National Baseball Team.

Playing alongside players such as David Price, Casey Weathers, Pedro Alvarez, Jemile Weeks and fellow Rangers farmhand Julio Borbon, Hunter won yet another gold medal in international competition.

"I got to hang out with, pretty much, the best players in the country," Hunter said. "We just had fun together. We set something like 20-some-odd records, so we were pretty much the best team to have ever played."

After a summer of playing teams from around the globe, Hunter returned to Alabama for his sophomore season.

When the 2007 First-Year Player Draft rolled around, he was selected once again, this time 54th overall by the Texas Rangers. And this time, he signed.

Despite his experience competing against the best in the world in two sports, Hunter has found professional baseball to be a completely different challenge. Only one word comes to Hunter's mind when trying to describe Minor League baseball.

"Whirlwind," Hunter said. "There's a little more pressure here than there is in college baseball, and that was not expected by me."

The pressure hasn't gotten to Hunter yet, though. In 10 games with short-season Class A Spokane in 2007, Hunter went 2-3 with a save, a 2.55 ERA and 13 strikeouts to just one walk.

Now at Double-A Frisco, Hunter is coming off a 112-pitch, eight-inning effort Saturday night against Corpus Christi that earned him his third victory of the season. Hunter allowed just two runs, one earned, on six hits and two walks, striking out four, as his ERA dropped from 4.93 to 4.27.

"His mentality is one of his strengths," Frisco manager Scott Little said. "He's a workhorse, he's a battler and he's only a year out of the Draft. The next step for him is to better command his pitches."

For the season in Double-A, Hunter is 3-2 in seven starts, with 20 strikeouts to 16 walks.

"For me, I'm not good enough where I'm at. I'm not to where I want to be," Hunter said.

In his first full professional season, Hunter has plenty of time to get to where he wants to be. And when he gets to where he ultimately wants to be -- the Major Leagues -- he knows it will mean even more to him than his gold medals at home.

"Without a doubt," Hunter said. "I'm not going to take anything away from my gold medals and stuff, but this is the ultimate goal. This is where I want to be, this is what I want to do in order to get to the big leagues some day."

Shawn Shroyer is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.