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KINSTON, N.C.--Coming into this season, the expectations couldn’t have been higher for Astros righthander Matt Albers. The 22-year-old compiled a 15-10, 3.60 career record in three seasons and was the organization's No. 6 prospect.
Drafted in 2001 by the team he grew up rooting for, Albers signed as a draft-and-follow in May 2002 after a year at San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College and put up consistently good numbers.
That is, until this year.
Albers started off 2005 with little command of his 92-93 mph fastball or any of his secondary pitches: curveball, slider and changeup. He faced adversity for the first time in his baseball life, and it went well beyond the diamond.
Last year, Albers was suspended for an alcohol-related incident and subsequently spent time in a rehabilitation facility before returning for low Class A Lexington’s playoff run. He was brilliant in his one postseason outing against Hagerstown, allowing just one hit over seven innings and striking out 11.
Albers got off to a rocky start at high Class A Salem this year, going 0-4, 6.86 in April and showing inconsistency in his delivery and command over much of the year. But he’s turning a corner this month, with 3-0, 2.25 numbers in August and a 21-5 strikeout-walk ratio in 20 innings.
We caught up with Albers to talk about his struggles this season, his battles with a different kind of rehab, and what it’s taken to get back to being himself:
On his struggles with consistency this season: “First off, I think it was more of just a mechanical problem. I was rushing and I think I tended to overthrow a little bit, so I was messing around with a lot of different things. In the month of May I did all right (3-2, 2.97 in 33 innings), and then I started getting back to where I was in the beginning, just doing the same bad stuff, flying open and didn’t have an idea. I lost confidence—like mentally I was all over the place. And that’s when I realized how inconsistent I was and started focusing on pitch to pitch and it all gradually came back together. You just have to have confidence in your ability.”
On his discipline problems and alcohol rehab last season: “I’ll say this—it’s something that happened and it’s something I’ve had to go through on a personal level to get through it. I was young, I made mistakes and I’ve had to learn from that, build on that. I can’t sit here and constantly look back on it, but at the same time, it was a learning experience. I faced it—it was something I had to do. I think I’ve done pretty well turning the corner and getting past it.
"Me and all my friends are in fraternities back home and so I was like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But you know what? I have a different situation. I’m a professional baseball player and I didn’t treat it like that. Word got out that I was partying a lot and I mean, we were in Lexington, Kentucky—total college town and when I got suspended, that was pretty much the last straw.”
On his August run: “In the middle of the season, I lost my confidence. I overcame that, so that wasn’t affecting my game anymore. But then I was still struggling and I didn’t understand it. It seemed like everything snowballed—every first inning felt like it was going to last forever. (He’s given up 28 hits and walked 13 in the first inning of his 23 outings this season). But I just needed to get back to basics and focus on pitch to pitch, batter to batter, inning to inning. Just getting back to being myself has been a tough road, but it’s been very much a learning experience. Like I said—everything happens for a reason and I feel like I’m going to be a better pitcher in the long run because of everything I’ve been through.”
• Salem second baseman Jonny Ash made his first start Monday after being hit in the head by a pitch last Wednesday by Lynchburg lefthander Josh Shortslef. Ash sustained a concussion and sat out of several games as a precaution. An 11th-round pick out of Stanford last year, he went 3-for-4 with a double and two runs in the Avalanche’s 8-4 loss to Kinston.
• High Class A Potomac catcher Salomon Manriquez is putting up career numbers this season. Currently hitting .301/.353/.505, Manriquez has emerged as the top catcher in the Nationals system, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best catcher in the Carolina League. Defensively, that honor goes to Winston-Salem’s Gustavo Molina, as voted by league managers in BA’s Best Tools survey. Offensively, it's Myrtle Beach's Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is hitting .324/.393/.533 with 16 homers in 383 at-bats. “Manriquez is having a great year at the plate, but I’d take either one of those guys ahead of him,” one CL manager said. “He doesn’t have nearly as good catch-and-throw skills as a guy like Molina and he doesn’t have the pop in his bat Saltalamacchia has. I think Saltalamacchia is ahead of where (Braves catcher Brian) McCann was at this point last year—both offensively and defensively. He just brings more to the table, and has a great approach from both sides of the plate.”
• Cubs lefthander Rich Hill has spent part of this season in the big leagues, and the Omaha Royals wish he'd stay there. Hill has made three starts against the Royals in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, and he has struck out 10 each time. He worked six innings for Iowa last night, giving up two runs on five hits to get the win in a 9-3 I-Cubs victory. Hill has 30 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings against Omaha, part of a minor league-leading total of 174 strikeouts in just 115 innings.
• High Class A Frederick righthander J.J. Johnson went the distance for the Keys last night, but still took the loss in Potomac’s 5-3 win. Johnson allowed four earned runs—including a two-run homer by Manriquez in the second inning—on nine hits, striking out 10. “The one thing I worry with him is he pitches with his fastball high in the zone a lot—that is his primary out pitch,” a National League scout said. “Sure, he has that big hammer curveball, but I don’t see that enough from him. He thinks he can just blow high heat past guys, and he can at this level, but Double-A is another story. He needs to trust his secondary stuff—which is already good enough—to keep moving.”
• Keep an eye on Triple-A Indianapolis catcher Ronny Paulino. The 24-year-old Dominican is raking in his first Triple-A experience, hitting .335/.391/.595 with 12 homers in 215 at-bats. Paulino went 2-for-4 with an RBI in Indy’s 11-4 win against Durham Monday night. “He’s going to be a big league catcher,” Indianapolis manager Trent Jewett said of the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder. “He controls the running game well with exceptional game-calling ability and produces at the plate. The bottom line is we win with him in the lineup.”
• Richmond lefthander Chuck James was brilliant in his second Triple-A outing. James allowed just one hit—a single by Buffalo catcher Javier Cardona—over eight innings in the Braves’ 1-0 win. He struck out four and walked three. "I had a little trouble keeping my fastball down," James told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I had good life on it, so that helped me out a lot. I got away with a lot. I think I gave up 12 or 13 warning-track shots. They're a good hitting team."
• Tigers righthander Joel Zumaya was also impressive in the International League last night. In his sixth start at Triple-A Toledo, Zumaya allowed two hits over 6 2/3 innings in a 1-0 win against Charlotte. He walked four and struck out nine. Since being called up from Double-A Erie, Zumaya is 1-2, 2.65 with 43 strikeouts in 34 innings.
• White Sox righthander Kris Honel put together his best outing of the season in a 1-0 shutout of Double-A Carolina last night. Honel, whose shoulder problems cost him most of last season, seems to be rebounding of late at Birmingham. In his last two starts, Honel has allowed just one earned run, including Monday when he tossed six shutout innings, striking out nine.
• It has been a rough season for Dan Meyer, and Monday night was no easier. The lefthander acquired by the A's in the Tim Hudson trade lasted seven innings, but allowed five runs while fanning only three and walking two for Triple-A Sacramento. The 24-year-old missed six weeks earlier this year with a strained shoulder but hasn't been any more effective since the injury than he was before. On the season, he is 2-7, 5.36 with a 60-40 strikeout-walk ratio in 84 innings.
• It has been an inconsistent season for Marlins righthander Jeff Allison as he returns to baseball after being suspended for substance abuse, but he has now put together back-to-back stellar starts for low Class A Greensboro. After allowing two runs (both on solo home runs) while fanning eight over seven innings Monday, the 20-year-old is 1-0, 2.57 with 16 strikeouts and three walks over his last two starts, spanning 14 innings. On the season he is 3-4, 4.14 with a 62-29 strikeout-walk ratio in 72 innings. He has allowed ten homers.
• Athletics righthander Michael Madsen, a 21st-round pick in June out of Ohio State, struck out a career-high nine batters and gave up just two runs over six innings in short-season Vancouver's 13-2 win against Spokane. Madsen improved to 5-0, 1.55 with a 43-9 strikeout-walk ratio in 58 innings. He has yet to give up more than two earned runs or two walks in any of his 11 professional outings.
• Padres second-rounder Chase Headley is showing pop in the Northwest League. The third baseman out of Tennessee homered in his second straight game in short-season Eugene's 6-4 loss to Tri-City. He now has five home runs and 27 RBIs in 171 pro at-bats. The Padres' other second-round pick, catcher Nick Hundley out of Arizona, went 0-for-3 in the game and was promoted afterward to low Class A Fort Wayne. Hundley hit .250-7-22 in 148 at-bats for the Emeralds.
• Corey Wimberly just keeps on doing what he did at Alcorn State: hit. The Rockies second baseman led NCAA Division I with a .462 average this spring, but he slipped to the sixth round of the draft because of his 5-foot-8, 185-pound stature. After going 3-for-4 in Rookie-level Casper's 9-7 loss to Missoula last night, Wimberly boosted his average to .364 in 187 at-bats in the Pioneer League. He has 22 stolen bases and a 14-17 walk-strikeout ratio on the season, and he is hitting .471 (16-for-34) during his current eight-game hitting streak.
• After missing all season with a sore elbow and a strained forearm, Cubs righthander Angel Guzman made a rehab start in the Rookie-level Arizona League last night, allowing three hits while striking out three over three scoreless innings. The 23-year-old entered the year as the Cubs' No. 4 prospect, having compiled a 27-13, 2.61 career record in 403 innings.
• A's righthander Jared Lansford, the son of former big leaguer Carney Lansford, dominated in his longest professional outing, striking out six and yielding just two hits over four innings of work in the Arizona League. Lansford, who was drafted in the second round in June after starring as a two-way player at St. Francis High in Santa Clara, Calif., has given up only one run in his first nine pro innings.
• Featuring one of the most potent offenses in the minors and a team batting average of .299, Class A San Jose used a team effort Monday night in a 17-7 rout of Inland Empire. Of the 50 Giants batters who came to the plate, 26 reached base as outfielder Nate Schierholtz and second baseman Todd Jennings each homered and drove in four runs. Schierholtz, first baseman Travis Ishikawa and DH Eddy Martinez-Esteve each scored three runs.
• The Kane County Cougars have won 10 of 14 games in August to move within three games of the Western Division lead in the low Class A Midwest League, and much of that has been thanks to the hot bats of the Athletics' top two picks in June: shortstop Cliff Pennington and outfielder Travis Buck. Pennington scored a pair of runs while Buck went 2-for-5 in a 12-5 win over West Michigan last night. Pennington has scored 17 runs in his last 18 games and is batting .279/.355/.377 in 215 at-bats with 20 stolen bases, while Buck is batting .340/.450/.500 in 13 games since a promotion from short-season Vancouver.
• Orioles supplemental first-round pick Garrett Olson continues to roll in the New York-Penn League. The former Cal Poly star stuck out the first six batters he faced and took a perfect game into the sixth in short-season Aberdeen’s 2-1 loss to Staten Island last night. Yankee second baseman Reegie Corona doubled with two outs in the sixth to become Staten Island’s first baserunner, and Olson finished the night with eight strikeouts in six innings. In 11 starts for the IronBirds, Olson is 2-1, 1.58 and has allowed just 22 hits in 40 innings while striking out 40. Olson who served as the workhorse in college, has already pitched 176 innings this year including the 136 in a 12-4, 2.71 season for the Mustangs.
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