The International League prevailed 2-1 in the Triple-A all-star game behind a universally strong pitching performance. Pacific Coast League batters managed just five hits—none for extra bases—while accumulating nine strikeouts versus the IL’s eight pitchers.
ALLENTOWN, Pa.—Gwinnett lefthander Mike Dunn found out indirectly that he would be headed to help an already strong Braves bullpen. The hard-throwing closer got word from his fiancée during the first inning of the Triple-A all-star game that he was being promoted.
“Gwinnett called Wes Timmons’ wife because they knew she’d be sitting next to my fiancée,” said Dunn, referring to his all-star game teammate.
Dunn struck out the side in the eighth inning after yielding a leadoff single to John Lindsey. He needed just 16 pitches, and he topped out at 94 mph.
“I thought I was the bubble guy anyway and didn’t think I’d get in the game,” admitted Dunn, who was 2-0, 1.05 with seven saves and 56 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings for Gwinnett.
A draft-and-follow pick out of the 33rd round by the Yankees in 2004, Dunn signed a year later but as a position player. He switched from outfield to the mound in 2006 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
“I pitched in high school and a little in junior college (JC of Southern Nevada), so it was always there,” Dunn said. “I always felt I wasn’t the true converted guy. You didn’t have to show me the windup or the stretch. I was going to be a fastball, changeup, slider guy. I knew my three pitches, it was just now we have to master the art of pitching and make my slider a little better.
“(The Yankees) gave me a call when I was in Low-A and said, ‘We want to make you a pitcher.’ It was kind of out of the blue, but I wasn’t really playing that good anyway. I knew I was taking a step backwards, but I told them I would it give it my best.”
Dunn’s velocity improved to the mid-90s when he moved to the bullpen full time at Double-A Trenton at the end of the 2008 season.
“I always felt I was a reliever in a starter’s body,” he said. “I knew that was my mentality. When they moved me to the bullpen it was exciting to me because now I’m available to the team every day.”
New York included Dunn in their deal for Javier Vasquez deal last offseason. The move reunited the lefty with Braves closer Billy Wagner, who he got to know during spring training.
“Just to be able to sit down in the bullpen and pick his brain was great,” Dunn said. “They have a great bullpen and they’re all pitching well. I’m glad I have the chance to see him again.”
The Best And Worst Of Times
While playing in Japan last year, Syracuse third baseman Chase Lambin experienced the worst season of his nine-year career, but maybe the best year of his life.
The 31-year-old hit just .192 with 12 extra-base hits and 12 RBIs in 58 games for the Chiba Lotte Marines. That’s the bad part. The upside is that he played for Bobby Valentine, who is a major celebrity in Japan.
“It’s a different game over there,” said Lambin, who earned MVP honors at the all-star game, going 1-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI double. “It’s more comfortable here. I was never comfortable there. It was too structured and I didn’t like the way they approached baseball.
“I had a tough role. I was a bench player and maybe started once a week. But the overall experience to play for Bobby was amazing. He’s the smartest baseball man I’ve ever met.”
Lambin was intrigued to play for him after watching the documentary “The Zen of Bobby V,” which chronicles Valentine’s life as a manager in Japan.
“The timing was right,” said Lambin, a 34th-round pick by the Mets in 2002. “They reached out to me and I worked out in front of Bobby. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I couldn’t pass it up. I learned how to squeeze life from him. He had a positive attitude every day.”
In Good Company
Iowa shortstop Darwin Barney has derived benefits from playing for Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg at just about every level since the Cubs selected him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. At Oregon State, Barney won back-to-back College World Series titles in 2006 and ’07.
“We’ve built a relationship,” said Barney, who drove in the PCL’s lone run in the all-star game. “He’s not a man of many words, but when he talks, you listen. He brings a family atmosphere to the clubhouse. You’re always going to see a smile from him.”
Sandberg was Barney’s first manager at low Class A Peoria in 2007, then with Double-A Tennessee last year and now with Triple-A Iowa. He also was Barney’s hitting coach in the Arizona Fall League. A pesky shortstop who isn’t known for his bat, Barney hit .297/.328/.381 with 20 doubles in the first half, usually while batting second.
“(Sandberg) likes to play aggressive,” Barney said. “He’ll hit and run with me at any count. He would rather see me swing away than give myself up with a bunt.
“As he’s gone higher and higher with the Cubs, you can see he’s finding himself, and he has less stress. He makes you care about your career.”
Diamond In The Rough
The PCL leader in strikeouts at the all-star break had endured his share of hardship. Iowa righty Thomas Diamond recovered from Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2007 season. When he returned to action, the Rangers—the team that made him the 10th overall pick in 2004—didn’t value him enough to keep him on their 40-man roster.
The Cubs claimed Diamond on waivers after he had been designated for assignment last September.
The 27-year-old went 5-3, 2.86 in 18 first-half starts, racking up 92 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings and getting the nod to start for the PCL all-star squad. He completed two scoreless innings, struck out two and walked two.
“I don’t have any bad feelings towards Texas,” Diamond said. “I wasn’t having a good year. I understand it’s part of the business. It was just a little bump in the road.”
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound righthander earned Rangers’ minor league pitcher of the year honors in 2005, his second pro season, going a cumulative 13-4, 3.53 with 169 strikeouts in 28 starts.
He led the Texas League in strikeouts with 145 the following year, then missed the entire 2007 campaign with elbow surgery. He battled a bone spur in his right ankle last year, which he finished as a reliever in Double-A.
Diamond’s fastball touched 98 mph before the surgery, but now he tops out in the mid-90s. Life without his best heater has taught Diamond to have more confidence in his secondary pitches, including a breaking ball that he’s not afraid to throw in any count.
“It’s more mental than anything,” he said about overcoming the surgery. “Nolan Ryan told me you get over it when you stop thinking about it on the mound. It took me two years to do that.”
On The Upswing
Like many of the Triple-A all-stars, Rochester outfielder Dustin Martin did not make his way into pro ball as a high-round draft pick. The Mets selected him in the 26th round in 2006 out of Sam Houston State, where he had a reputation as a guy who can play all three outfield spots, steal a few bases and hit for a decent average.
Just a year later, the Mets included Martin in their trade with the Twins that brought Luis Castillo to New York. That change in organizations, not to mention a trip to the Venezuelan League last offseason, has paid off.
Martin leads the Red Wings with 55 RBIs, ranking him third in the IL. That’s two more than he produced with Rochester in 124 games last year. He never had exceeded 10 home runs in a season, but this summer he already has nine.
“I made a few adjustments in Venezuela and the RBIs and home runs came with it,” the lefthanded-hitting Martin said. “Growing up I always hit for average, but who doesn’t like to hit home runs?”
Martin, who batted .298/.395/.477 in 44 games for Aragua last winter, pays a little attention to what’s going on with this parent club. But he receives most of the information from his father.
“My dad called me and said, ‘Did you know Morneau is injured?’ I said, ‘Thanks dad. I didn’t know that.’ “
Tenure Has Its Benefits
Before he left to join the Padres bullpen for the second half, Portland closer Ernesto Frieri spoke about his transformation from reliever to starter to closer over the course of his eight pro seasons.
“I was a reliever in 2005,” Frieri said, “then in 2008 I changed to a starter because I didn’t have a curveball. I pitched pretty good the next two years, but they really wanted me to concentrate on the curveball.”
Signed by the Padres out of Bolivar, Colombia, Frieri finally mastered control of the curve in 2009 with Double-A San Antonio. This season, he went 3-1, 1.43 with 49 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings while recording 15 saves for the Beavers.
“The key was to just keep throwing it,” Frieri said. “The Padres did the right thing moving me to the bullpen. Last year I finally got it back. Now I throw it as a first pitch and it has the same arm action as my fastball.”
Frieri is the longest-tenured player in the Padres organization, having signed at age 17 in 2003. San Diego rewarded him with a cup of coffee last season, in which he worked two hitless, scoreless innings of relief.