ZEBULON, N.C. — Had he really wanted to, Dallas Buck could have thumped his chest after retreating to the clubhouse, perhaps let himself soak in the moment and beam about the night that was.
Instead, there he stood Friday night beyond the right field wall at the Double-A Carolina Mudcats’ Five County Stadium dressed in business attire that seemed suitable for his business-like expression.
The former Oregon State star battling back from Tommy John surgery could say he rummaged through a big league lineup, plus spring-boarded into a season that could truly shape the rest of his career.
Yet he tried to keep it in perspective.
“It was an exciting game, but I don’t take a whole lot from it,” a nonchalant, almost too modest Buck offered. “It just feels good to be throwing. I haven’t been healthy in three years.”
Nevertheless, on a night when an intriguing cast of Reds prospects upstaged their Cincinnati counterparts in a rare barnstorming exhibition format—scoring a 12-4 victory—Buck made a significant splash.
From his arm came five crisp innings in which the 6-foot-2, 210-pound righthander handled Dusty Baker’s lineup and finished with six strikeouts, three walks and two earned runs. His first four frames were scoreless.
Top prospect Yonder Alonso provided a three-run home run off Bronson Arroyo in the first and, exuding patience as well, drew three walks. Third baseman Juan Francisco twice homered, including once on a moon shot that rifled over the roof of the home clubhouse that sits well beyond the right field wall.
Yet the night belonged to Buck, whose performance suggested that his problematic elbow may no longer be a worrisome issue.
Throughout he worked between 88-90 mph, although his Double-A pitching coach said it registered 93 on the team gun and expects the velocity to increase through the season. Even better, Buck mostly worked down in the zone, allowing his defense to make plays and, when it came time to sneak by a few changeups, he didn’t over-sell them, either.
The litmus test, actually, came as Buck meandered through the lineup. Gaining confidence, particularly with an eight-pitch third inning, he turned to his slider and kept offering it. The pitch does not yet have the to-die-for late break but was serviceable enough.
He also threw it with authority, signaling that his elbow, the one that pained him as he bulldogged his way through a national championship season as a junior at Oregon State in 2006, has cleared the necessary medical and physical hurdles.
“I’m not afraid to throw it. I feel good,” Buck said. “I don’t see any reason to hold back. I can go out there 100 percent.”
Buck’s performance played out as the Reds stumbled their way into a 9-1 hole. Bronson Arroyo, apparently still battling carpel tunnel in his pitching hand, got the hook after yielding six runs on seven hits—Alonso’s three-run homer among them, but also tacked on a bullpen session afterward.
It didn’t help that Reds outfielders Chris Dickerson, Darnell McDonald and Jay Bruce, all battling fierce winds blowing out to center, each misplayed flyballs that led to three, three-run frames.
McDonald dropped one that hit the heel of his glove. Bruce, who played occasionally at Five County Stadium in his Southern League days, pulled up shy of the right field track on a ball that clanged the wall at eye-level. Dickerson, trying to avoid an awkward, jutting-out wall in foul territory in left—think old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia—let a Francisco flyball plop fair just inside the line.
Dickerson’s momentum actually carried him over the three-foot-high fence and, with the ball rolling around, Francisco hustled all the way around the bases and scored an inside-the-park home run.
He didn’t have to book it home on his other homer. It was a no-doubter off Francisco Cordero and, just as majestic as several of the ones he launched an impressive BP power display.
All this while Alonso, the Reds’ 2008 first-round pick, frustrated pitchers by not chasing their away stuff and drew three walks. Drew Stubbs had two poor at-bats and popped out in his third. Venezuelan Yorman Rodriguez, a 16-year-old that signed for $2.5 million last August, popped out in three pitches in the eighth. (Twenty-four of BA’s Top 30 Reds prospects were on the rosters.)
“We wanted to prove to everybody that we’re here to play,” said Alonso, who with the other Future Reds will play the big league Reds in a 3:05 p.m. game Saturday in Dayton, Ohio. “We got some breaks, but we took advantage of them.”
For Buck, it was a night that could launch a must-have season. He pitched 98 innings in 2007, but was limited to 64 last season. A third-round pick in 2006, he joined the Reds from the Diamondbacks as part of the Adam Dunn trade.
His journey this year will start in this very ballpark, which the Reds now occupy after ending a long relationship with Chattanooga this past offseason.
A key could become the slider.
“It felt like it was pretty good,” Buck said. “Early, it was a little shaky. I felt I could throw it for strikes when I needed to.”
His pitching coach, Rigo Beltran, is confident, then, that Buck’s elbow will hold up. In his motion, Buck sort of jerks back on his elbow before firing to the plate.
“I don’t think (the elbow) that’s an issue as long as he’s 100 percent,” Beltran said.
Buck also isn’t so much concerned about his velocity. It was 92-94 back in Corvallis. A Baseball America radar gun had him sitting 88-90, but Beltran said the team’s gun read it as high as 93 mph.
“It really doesn’t matter to me what my velocity is,” Buck said. “I try to get quick innings and keep the ball on the ground if at all possible.
“Every year is important. I need to got out and throw innings. That’s all I can do. The rest is out of my hands.”
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