Thursday, August 21, 2008

Duke Welker: First-Hand Look at a Pirate Farmhand

I've been sitting on this analysis of a pitcher in the Pirates' minor-league system for two weeks. It's an obvious case of small sample-size, but it's much better than reading a box score. My fault for not putting it on the blog sooner. Nonetheless, enjoy.

As I’ve written and said in the past, I’ve been spending more than half my time this summer in Charleston, W. Va., the home of the West Virginia Power, Class A affiliate of MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers. Two weeks ago, the Pirates’ representative in the sprawling South Atlantic League, the Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads, paid a visit to Charleston’s four-year-old Appalachian Power Park for a four-game series.

I had hoped to catch the second Crawdad start for the newly-acquired Bryan Morris, who came over from the Los Angeles Dodgers system in the Jason Bay-Manny Ramirez three-way trade. Morris, said to be the pitcher with the highest potential of the five acquired by Pittsburgh in the final week of July, was enjoying a good measure of success as a member of the Great Lakes Loons of the Class-A Midwest League. Unfortunately for me and all the rest of the Buccos fans in central West Virginia, Morris threw in the game immediately previous to Hickory’s trip to Charleston, a home win against Rome, Ga. There was an off day sandwiched between the finish of the ‘Dads series against Rome and the showdown with the Power, but the Hickory coaching staff elected to maintain a five-man rotation instead of throwing Morris in the series finale against the Power.

Long story made short: I missed out on a front-row view of Our Buccos’ promising pitching pickup, but instead got a chance to scope out the only other Hickory hurler worth seeing – Duke Welker. As it turned out, the 6’6” righthander enjoyed what could be considered a showcase start against the best hitting team in the South Atlantic League on the evening of Aug. 7.

It was apparent Welker brought his best stuff from the get-go, as he struck out the side in the bottom of the first. Welker got the Power’s Eric Farris and Logan Schafer to swing over nasty “downer” curveballs for third strikes, then finished the frame in impressive fashion by freezing No. 3-hitter Eric Fryer with a fastball at the knees in a 2-2 count. All in all, it took Welker 18 pitches to set down the Power in order, 11 of those offerings for strikes.

Using his above-average height to his advantage, Welker continued to keep his pitches low with a pronounced downward flight. He surrendered a pair of baserunners in the second on a leadoff infield single by Steffan Wilson and a full-count, two-out walk to Caleb Gindl. Catcher Ronald Pena nailed Wilson on a caught stealing to settle things down, and then Welker did the rest, getting Zelous Wheeler to wave over another “plus” curveball low and out of the zone, then set down Curt Rindal on a shallow flyout to left to finish the second.

The only serious critique of Welker’s work through two was an elevated pitch count – 38 to only seven batters. But the Crawdads’ righty made up some ground by slipping through the third on just five pitches, inducing a pair of harmless groundballs on the way to his second perfect inning of the night.

After two quick groundball outs to kick off the fourth, Welker endured some hard luck that partially contributed to what proved to be the ballgame’s deciding inning. With the bases clear, Wilson stroked a medium-paced grounder directly over second base. Wheeler followed with a seven-pitch at-bat that ended in a base on balls. Then, on a 1-0 pitch, Gindl fought off a Welker inside fastball and poked a two-run double inside first base, just beyond a diving Tom Hagan. Rindal completed the Power onslaught when he chopped one off the upraised glove of Welker that died on the infield grass for another RBI. Bottom of the fourth: three runs on three hits and a walk; Welker threw 27 pitches to push his game total to 70.

Welker continued to throw quality pitches, however, as he used a 6-4-3 double play to shimmy out of a spot of trouble caused by the Power’s improbable third infield hit of the evening, this time off the bat of No. 9-hitter Lee Haydel.

The sixth inning turned sour when two out of the first three West Virginia batters reached by way of singles to left. Welker managed to set down Gindl on a 1-3 putout, then was lifted for reliever Wanell Macia. The Dominican lefty would escape that jam, but the Hickory bullpen went on to give up a nine-run eighth in what finished as a 13-2 Power victory; the main culprit was Francisco Ortiz, who incredibly allowed the first eight West Virginia hitters to reach base. Let’s just say it’s no mystery why the Crawdads are firmly entrenched in the South Division basement.

Final line for Welker: 5.2 innings, three runs, seven hits, four strikeouts (all in the first five batters) and two walks on 89 pitches. He got the loss, but if you are an aficionado of sabremetrics like me, you know never to pay attention to a pitcher’s record as it is almost entirely a result of offensive support and factors outside his control.

Polish Prodigy final analysis: Duke Welker turned in one of the more dominant performances by a starting pitcher I’ve seen in my nearly two years following the South Atlantic League. His fastball bounced from the low 90s to as high as 95-96 and his aforementioned “12-to-6” curveball had a good tight break as it fell from his high release point. He showed an occasional changeup, more often as he got deeper into the game. The key to his success Aug. 7 was staying in the lower half of the strike zone and not surrendering many line drives or fly balls. As I wrote above, he was the victim of bad fortune in the “hits allowed” category, seeing grounders either barely sneak through his infield defense or settle on the grass for infield safeties.

Don’t assume Bryan Morris is the only pitcher in the low minors with a high ceiling; as Duke Welker showed on the road against the SAL’s premier hitting squad, he has the ability to make a charge up the Pirates’ prospect list.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Whilst I Was Away

After a 12-day gap between posts, you can be certain I have excuses (five days in Michigan w/o Internet access, weekend at home consumed with moving my grandmother out of her house) and that I have a backlog of thoughts on the sports world. So, leaving the irrelevant excuses behind, it's once again time for an always thrilling, yet occasionally disorienting potpourri post!

-Just one week after the conclusion of one of the most annoyingly over-covered sports stories I can remember (the Brett Favre un-retirement and subsequent relocation), we get the Michael Phelps epic to save us from our August doldrums. If there ever was an event that was suited for the modern 24-hour news cycle, it was Phelps' 8-for-8 roll in Beijing. Add a 12-hour time difference from the Eastern Time Zone to a grueling schedule at the truly stunning Water Cube, and the hunger for information on the 23-year-old's quest was insatiable. Beyond all that though, I am continually surprised by how much a transcendent performance at the Olympics can still captivate an enormous segment of the consuming public. I guess it's just jarring in this era of increased regional/local focus that an event halfway around the world can draw the largest time-slot viewing audience on NBC since 1990. For me, it's comforting that national pride can still be roused by Olympic excellence.

-Staying on the Olympics theme, I usually come into the summer Olympiads with low expectations. I believe this subdued attitude stems from my unfamiliarity with most of the sports and almost all of the competitors, with few exceptions. At least in the winter Games, I have the ice hockey tournament, which features a huge contingent of recognizable NHL players, to look forward to. To highlight my malaise this time around, I even skipped the Opening Ceremony to play tennis. However, I'm always quickly captivated by the both the variety and earnestness of this quadrennial athletic extravaganza. Also, the magnitude of the moments that occur during a given Olympiad are nearly impossible to ignore; when an athlete such as Phelps trains for four years in order to peak at exactly the right moment, the pressure is undeniable. All in all, it makes for a fantastic spectator experience.

-Oh, and by the way, it's pronounced Bay-Jing, not Bay-Zhing. Brian Williams has it down, do you?

-While I was in Grand Rapids this weekend, the Pirates managed to sign No. 2 overall draft pick Pedro Alvarez to a minor-league deal right at the midnight Aug. 15 deadline. I had a good feeling he was going to eventually cave to Our Buccos' proposed contact terms, simply because his family is sliding just above the poverty level (just like Jillian and I, now that I think about it) and Pedro would have put his earning potential at serious risk if he waited for next June's amateur draft. Of course, sources say that the former Vanderbilt third baseman is eager to begin his professional career and is genuinely happy to be property of the Pirates. Whatever his motivations may be, his addition to the organization is arguably the largest step the franchise could take toward making an honest commitment to building a winner. The trades involving Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte were important, natch, but forking over a $6 million signing bonus to Alvarez shows that the ownership group, led by Bob Nutting, is actually willing to take a bit of a financial hit if it makes baseball sense. That is something Pirates fans haven't seen in close to 20 years.

-While watching the Pirates-Cardinals game on FSN tonight, I am reminded of a conclusion I reached last week: Greg Brown has supplanted Lanny Frattare in my mind as the Voice of the Pirates. Yes, I know Lanny has the tenure - he's been broadcasting Bucs games for more than 30 years - but it really seems like the 15-plus years of losing have officially gotten to him. His technical skills haven't appreciably deteriorated, but his level of enthusiasm has indeed waned. I think the only game that got a rise out of him this year was the insane comeback against St. Louis just before the All-Star Break. I enjoy Lanny and respect his perspective and even commiserate with his frustration level, but as a pro broadcaster one has to put aside personal feeling to a certain point and give each game the attention it deserves. At this point, I feel Brown better represents the on-air treatment I'd like my favorite team to receive. Perhaps it's to Brown's advantage that he's never broadcast a winning Pirates club (he was hired in 1994); it's hard for him to get too down when all he knows is the underside of .500. That's not to say he's not upset by the Losing Streak; he is among the team's most frequent critics when on-field events go awry. But no matter whether he's cheering or moaning, I get the impression he actually still wants to be there every day, whereas Lanny has his good days and bad.

-I'm sure the previous paragraph would seem irrelevant to many people who aren't in the sportscasting business (or trying to be). I'm thinking in particular of my brother, who tells me he often cannot tell the difference between Lanny and Greg. *sigh* For those of you with similar issues, Lanny says "And there was noooooo doubt about it!" after Bucco victories, whereas Greg christens the moment with the Polish Prodigy-endorsed "Raise the Jolly Roger!"

-Time to get back to the Pirates (Ian Snell is actually cruising through five) and Day Twelve of the Bay-Jing Olympics. Expect a podcast before the end of the week, likely featuring Jillian once more. I've been told we have good chemistry on more than one occasion. Until next time!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #7

In today's episode, Jillian completely outclasses Matt in her second podcast appearance. Also, listen as Matt claims Jeff Karstens could have become the 15th pitcher to throw a perfect game in MLB history (actually the 18th) and the first Pirate to record a no-hitter since John Candelaria in 1976 (how easily we forget the Cordova-Rincon gem in '97). Mistakes are fun...this is what happens when you don't have regular access to the Internet.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

You Are Toast

Over the past two nights, I’ve had the best possible seat for the wackiest, wildest, most stupefyingly hilarious show in all of baseball.

You won’t find it in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit or even Pittsburgh. All you need to attend is $8, the cost of a reserved seat at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, W. Va. Ask for a spot in Section 106, 107 or 108.

The star of this theatre-worthy performance is one Rod Blackstone, the assistant mayor of the Mountain State’s capital city. But while he may play understudy to Mayor Danny Jones during the day, when the South Atlantic League’s West Virginia Power is in town, Blackstone is truly lord of his front-row manor.

Around the four-year old ballpark on Charleston’s East End, Blackstone is better known by his one-of-a-kind alias, the Toastman. And while every sports team has its share of “superfans,” I’m rather confident in saying the Toastman has no peer.

The name comes from his decade-plus habit of tossing out actual pieces of toast to nearby fans after a Power pitcher records a strikeout. That in and of itself is pretty funny and definitely unique in the quirky realm of ballpark behavior. That, however, is just one facet of his pleasingly zany gametime persona.

Start with Blackstone’s method of toast production. One might guessed that the longtime season-ticket holder chars his slices of Wonder bread at home, in a kind of heckler’s pregame ritual. On the contrary, he brings the bread to the park and prepares it in a family-sized toaster that the Power allows him to store in the press box between games.

As the smoke from the intentionally-scorched slices wafts into the evening air, the Toastman uses one of his many signs – I’ll get to those in just a bit – to fan the smell of the burnt morsels into the nostrils of opposing hitters, especially those in the on-deck circle conveniently located just a few feet from Blackstone’s seat.

Since the fortysomething Toastman does all his cooking on the spot, he saves his free time during the summer months for opposition research, or more accurately, opposition failure research. You see, the toast show is almost secondary to Blackstone’s relentless needling of enemy pitchers, hitters and, yes, even coaches on their every statistical blemish and/or character flaw. A voracious fan of the game and a man willing to do whatever is necessary to give the home team a psychological edge, the Pittsburgh-born and -raised Toastman scours the Internet for anything he can use to the Power’s advantage.

For instance, while Delmarva Shorebirds Tuesday night starter Nate Nery came into his appearance against the Power with a respectable stat line, the Toastman dug deep and found a nightmare outing in Lakewood, N. J., to report: “DO YOU REMEMBER THE LAKEWOOD GAME, NATE NERY? BECAUSE I DO! YOU GAVE UP NINE RUNS IN THREE INNINGS JUST A FEW STARTS AGO! I KNOW YOU’RE THIKING ABOUT IT!”

As one would expect, the visitors don’t always take too well to the incessant and damningly accurate ribbing from a mustachioed man they’ve never seen before. From the irritable young pro ballplayer, there is typically one of two reactions: death stare or feigned disinterest. Either way, the Toastman knows he’s getting through.

By the final game of their team’s stay in Charleston, though, the initial ire begins to erode in favor of begrudging appreciation, and in some cases, actual affection for the passionate heckler trying to pry his way inside their heads.

After all, it’s impossible to deny the Toastman’s dedication to his craft. I briefly mentioned his vast collection of signs above – placards that help him lead encouraging chants among the Power faithful, e.g. “Cline Drive” for infielder Matt Cline and “Deep Fryer” boosting catcher Eric Fryer. Did I mention nearly every sign is in full vibrant color and features distinguishing fonts and flourishes? This isn’t a hobby; it’s a vocation.

I worked as an intern for the Power last summer, and it was during my time as the on-field between-innings MC that I met the loquacious legend. Upon conclusion of a midseason contest, the Toastman introduced himself through the screen behind home plate and complimented me on my ad lib work. I eventually found out he was a Syracuse graduate and earned his degree in journalism with the intention of being a newscaster. It’s probably a combination of that plus his confession to being a rabid Pirates fan that caused us to immediately hit it off.

Anyway, since my fiancée works in the Power front office, I can essentially sit wherever I want when I attend a game at Appalachian Power Park. The choice is simple.

One last story: While he was preparing to pack up his paraphernalia and leave Monday’s game, a convincing victory for the first-place Power, the Toastman noticed Delmarva shortstop Pedro Florimon battering the dugout trash receptacle to hell after a poor performance. Segue to last night, when during Florimon’s third at-bat, Blackstone came striding down the aisle with, incredibly, a concourse garbage can in his hands. Ridiculously brandishing the oversized bin, the Toastman questioned the shortstop at high volume, “WHAT DO YOU HAVE AGAINST GARBAGE CANS, PEDRO? WHY DID YOU TAKE OUT YOUR FRUSTRATION ON THIS INNOCENT INANIMATE OBJECT?!”

Florimon never had a chance to see the uproarious display in his honor, as he briskly walked on four pitches. No matter. As the Toastman will readily tell you, his act is all about getting the fans involved. If he happens to throw a Power opponent or two off his game in the process, all the better.

In the often-grueling marathon that is minor league baseball, one man in Charleston, W. Va. keeps it fresh and energized.

For a minimum of 70 nights a year, Rod Blackstone shouts down ballpark boredom with three short words: “YOU ARE TOAST!”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Polish Prodigy Podcast #6

As proof that August doesn't have to be boring, I submit reasons to keep the passion alive as a sports fan during supposedly the quietest month on the sporting calendar. If you're hungry for some hearty Pirates talk, supplemented by a little tennis and golf, you've come to the proper place. Oh, and it's just me again...so don't expect multiple opinions unless I have a schizophrenic episode.

To subscribe to the podcast, copy and paste this link (http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/UgrK) into your iTunes under the "Advanced" menu. Click on "Subscribe to Podcast" and paste the above URL there. Enjoy!

Monday, August 4, 2008

August and Forever After

August has always been my least favorite month for mainly one reason: the incoming specter of pencils, books and teachers' dirty looks. Now that I've graduated from college, August has lost most of its dread-inducing qualities, allowing me to properly enjoy the final full month of glorious summer for the first time since I was four.

(Notice that I wrote "most," not "all" regarding this month's dread inducers. Remember, we have five months of wall-to-wall football coverage to look forward to!)

In honor of the underappreciated eighth month, I present eight things to get excited about during the following 27 sultry days of August. "Dog days" no more!

1. Pirates' post-Bay progress - As was predicted here on The Polish Prodigy, Jason Bay was part of a three-team deal that sent Manny Ramirez out of Boston. Alright, so maybe I didn't so much predict it as I reported the rumors circulating around MLB on Trade Deadline Day. What I did do was admit that trading the two-time All-Star leftfielder could really kickstart a legitimate rebuilding process if he were traded for the proper pieces. While we won't truly discover the quality of the deal for five or more years, I believe that Pirates fans have to at least be optimistic about the four-player yield. Andy LaRoche is one of the best hitting prospects in baseball and seems pumped about playing on the same infield as his older brother. Bryan Morris is by all accounts I've read/heard a projected top of the rotation starter, even if its still very early in his pro career. Craig Hansen still needs to work on his consistency, but he has the stuff of a future closer; this is good because Matt Capps is better suited as a setup man. Brandon Moss has already established himself as a legit major leaguer and now he'll get the number of starts and at-bats to reveal his potential. Yes, I'm bullish on the Bay deal, and any serious follower of Our Buccos should be excited about the new blood in the organization.

2. Steelers' preseason games - No, not to watch them, silly. I'm talking about making fun of the psycho "Super Steelers" fans who will throw a fit every time Big Ben throws an incompletion during the exhibition season. Just watching the overreaction makes the interminable length of the NFL preseason completely worth it.

3. Getting outside - In the Northeast and Midwest, August is usually the last month of reliable warm weather, day and night. This means that whether you enjoy cool, hazy mornings, bright, hot afternoons or warm, pleasant evenings, the eighth month is ideal for getting active outside. Just pick your favorite time of the day and go for it, but make sure to watch out for those powerful late-summer electrical storms. I'm lucky - I happen to like those, too.

4. Thanking the Yankees - While Xavier Nady tears it up in the Bronx, making you like a proud father and a jealous sibling at the same time, know that the three pitchers the Pirates picked up from the Yanks could lend some instant credibility to the starting rotation. Jeff Karstens already reintroduced us to the joy of the quality start as he shut down the terrific Cubs offense through six scoreless innings this past Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The other two former New Yorkers, Ross Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutcheon, could be up with the big club very soon depending on the upcoming fortunes of Yoslan "La Pinata" Herrera and Zach Duke. Either way, it's nice to know that John Van Benschoten will likely never start another game in Pirates black and gold. He is now officially a member of the Indianapolis Indians bullpen.

5. Hit the road - Hey, I know gas prices are at about twice the palatable level and that a long drive in a sweltering petroleum-guzzler doesn't sound like a particularly enriching experience. So why not take a short sports-oriented trip that will neither hit your wallet too hard nor make you miserable. My family and I just spent a day on the grounds of the Lindner Family Tennis Center in southwest Ohio for one of the premier ATP events of the year: Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati. Every summer, the classy suburb of Mason offers both a men's and a women's hardcourt tournament in the run-up to the U.S. Open. We attended the men's event and were lucky enough to see Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal square off with world No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Also, training camps for the NFL's Bengals (Georgetown, Ky.), Browns (Berea, Ohio) and Steelers (Latrobe, Pa.) are within two hours driving time from West Virginia, if that's your thing. Finally, a quick hop to downtown Pittsburgh's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum is a must-do for any fan of the area's pro franchises, colleges and high schools.

6. In case you didn't know - Brett Favre's back!!! Just messin'...

7. PGA Championship - Once again, Tiger will not be in the field for the season's final major. No matter. Much like the recently-completed British Open, the PGA will be interesting if only because of the quality of the course it's played on. I'm certainly not saying scoring conditions at Oakland Hills in southeast Michigan will be as punishing as those at Royal Birkdale. However, none other than Ben Hogan considered the track outside Detroit the most difficult he ever encountered; that's gotta count for something. Simply put, don't count on any of the qualifying club pros to hang with the big boys this week. Tee times are set for early Thursday morning...should be fun.

8. U.S. Open - Just two weeks after the world's best golfers have their last shot at major tournament glory, the premier tennis pros take their cracks in Flushing Meadows , New York. Anyone has a shot at the big trophy: new No. 1 Nadal, Roger Federer, Djokovic, Andy Murray (winner in Cincinnati), hometown boy James Blake, heck, maybe even Andy Roddick has a chance at repeating his 2003 Grand Slam breakthrough. The women's side should be just as competitive and wide-open, if not more so. Take the electric atmosphere of the Big Apple and combine it with the best talent in the world and you get the most captivating event in individual sports.