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Arizona Fall League Notebook
By Jack Magruder
PEORIA, Ariz.--Number of weeks righthander Chris Oxspring spent in Australia after pitching in the Summer Olympics?
Numbers of Foster's lagers he had to buy while home?
Assuring your country's first Olympic silver medal in baseball can have its rewards.
Oxspring (Padres) was hailed as a national hero--recognized virtually everywhere and asked to pony up nowhere--after pitching the Aussies to a 1-0 victory over Japan in a semifinal game at the 2004 Athens Games, but the advantages were not limited to the land down under.
After spending a goodly amount of time in San Diego's major league camp last spring, Oxspring seemed to elevate himself even further on the Padres' organizational charts with his strong summer and continued success with the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League.
Oxspring, 27, throws four pitches, starting with an above-average low 90s fastball that topped out at 96 mph during his time at Triple-A Portland this summer. His curve has been a knee-buckler at times in the Fall League, according to Javelinas pitching coach Gary Lance (a pitching coach at the Padres’ Double-A Mobile team in the regular season), and he complements those with a cutter/slider and a changeup.
"Chris is a guy who has improved every year. He definitely has a power arm,'' Padres farm director Tye Waller said. "The key to pitching in the major leagues is to be able to throw three quality pitches for strikes. He has four. Basically it’s just trusting your stuff as you advance through the different levels.
"He is on the brink of breaking through. He's right on track. He can come into spring training on a good roll.''
While Oxspring opened a lot of eyes in the organization last spring, Lance said, he became an international story after receiving the Padres' blessing to represent Australia in the 2004 Olympics,
Considering his status as a prospect just one step away from a spot on the major league roster, Oxspring weighed the merits of missing a month of the Pacific Coast League season before opting to represent his country.
"I finally decided it was the best thing for me to do and the best experience that I could probably draw on,'' Oxspring said.
His countrymen could not have agreed more. With major league veteran Dave Nilsson behind the plate, Oxspring pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings against Japan, striking out five without walking a batter, to lead Australia into the gold medal game. (Cuba beat the Aussies for the gold.)
The pressure of playing the most high-profile team in the Olympics—Japan sent a virtual all-star team from its major leagues to Athens--in a must-win situation did not seem to bother Oxspring, who has climbed his share of mountains since signing with the Padres out of the independent Frontier League in 2000.
"It was kind of a tough situation, but it's a situation that you'd like to find yourself in more often,” said Oxspring, 6-foot-1, 182 pounds. “To win 1-0, there's no better way to get a win.
"On that day I had all four working, and it definitely makes it a lot easier going out there knowing that you have four pitches you can throw at any given time. I was lucky to be able to throw to Dave Nilsson and let him take control of the game and just not have to worry about what I'm going to throw in what situation to which hitter. It worked out well.''
Oxspring was 6-4, 3.99 in 17 games at Portland in a 2004 season that also was interrupted by an early-season elbow strain that kept him out for six weeks. He limited hitters to a .247 average in his first Triple-A season after going 10-6, 2.92 in Mobile the year before. In his four minor league seasons with the Padres, he has 332 strikeouts in 332 1-3 innings.
"He has all the components to have a good career in the big leagues,'' Lance said. "Not just make it. A lot of people make it. He's going to be able to have a good career in the big leagues.''
Oxspring has topped out at 92-93 in the Fall League and has been effective. He threw five shutout innings against Scottsdale in an Oct. 26 start O, giving up one hit and not walking a batter, and has not walked a batter in his last three outings.
"I was just so inconsistent'' early at Portland, he said. "I could be lights out one day, five days later be absolutely terrible. I just wanted to come out here and work on throwing the ball in the strike zone and knowing that I can get guys out an any stage.
"My main goal out here is not to walk anybody. Just throw the ball in the strike zone and let it happen. I've been really happy with the way that is going and the way everything is progressing. It is slowly starting to come around.
"I'm starting to learn that you don't have to try to strike everybody out to progress. You can get people out by just throwing ground balls and cheap fly balls. It lets you go deeper in the game.''
• The Fall League announced the creation of the Dernell Stenson AFL Sportsmanship Award, to be presented annually beginning this season to the Fall League athlete who demonstrates the qualities of determination and purpose Stenson typified in his two seasons in the league, executive vice president Steve Cobb said. Stenson, who reached the big leagues briefly with Boston and was a Reds farmhand last fall, was murdered last Nov. 5, 2003, while a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions. "We want to remember the contributions Dernell Stenson made to this league, in his work ethic and his dedication to the game. We think this is a fitting way to remember Dernell," Cobb said. Managers, coaches and players of each team will nominate one player for the award, and the winner will be presented with a commemorative plaque Nov. 18, the final day of the AFL regular season.
• Grand Canyon catcher Chris Shelton (Tigers) and Peoria Saguaros righthander Jeff Miller (Pirates) were named October players of the month. Shelton was hitting .400-6-30 while leading the league in RBIs and slugging percentage (.750) and ranking second in home runs. He spent a good portion of 2004 with parent Detroit after being selected in the major league Rule 5 draft out of the Pirates organization last December. Miller is 0-0, 1.38 with three saves, tied for third in the league. He has given up seven hits and one walk in 13 innings while striking out 13. Miller was 5-4, 2.91 with 18 saves at Double-A Altoona while limiting opponents to a .198 batting average.
• Mesa lost two Cubs farmhands from its pitching staff Monday when righthander Jae Kuk Ryu and lefthander Sean Marshall were shut down with injuries. Ryu went down with lower back soreness, while Marshall aggravated the partially ruptured tendon in his middle finger that caused him to miss the final two months of the season at Double-A West Tenn. Ryu was 1-3, 6.41 in 20 innings, while Marshall went 0-1, 0.93 in 18 innings this fall.
• Mesa already had lost Joey Gathright (Devil Rays) a week earlier when the speedy outfielder injured his right shoulder diving back into first base. Gathright’s injury is not considered serious, but the Rays sent him home as a precautionary measure. Gathright, who could figure into Tampa Bay’s big league picture after the knee injury to Rocco Baldelli this offseason, was hitting at a .365 clip for the Solar Sox before the injury.
• Peoria Javelinas third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff (Indians) was getting a read on a foul pop up near the third-base dugout when he lost his footing, slipped and fell, hitting his back on every step down. Kouzmanoff sat out a game with soreness, but otherwise has played through the injury. Kouzmanoff was hitting .314-2-15 in the AFL.Contributing: Chris Kline