Late-night Adrenaline Rush

LAKELAND, Fla.–About 15 hours removed from Minute Maid Park in Houston, and less than five hours after checking in to the luxurious La Quinta Inn, I fell into a seat down the first-base line at Joker Marchant Field for the first round of batting practice of the East Coast Professional Showcase on Wednesday.

The Texas Scouts Association workout was productive, and a two-hour delay in my layover in Atlanta Tuesday night afforded me a chance to hash through my sweaty notes, so keep your eyes peeled for the top 20 prospects list from the workout at Minute Maid Park.

As the case was in Houston, the pitching in Lakeland on the first day was lackluster. Two rain delays that totaled more than two and a half hours made a long day even longer, and by the time the last of three games started around 9 p.m., I was in serious need of smelling salts . . . or one of the best pitching matchups of the summer.

The showdown between Tim Melville and Sonny Gray was the equivalent of mainlining Red Bull. The whole park perked up when Gray toed the rubber, and he subsequently fortified his reputation as one of the top righthanders in the class.

The 6-foot pistol from Tennessee fired 12 pitches in a one-two-three first inning, striking out the side. Gray’s fastball hit 94 mph, and he showed two breaking balls: a curve in the mid-70s and a bastard slider that he recently added to his repertoire, which was checking in at 82-84 mph.

Missouri’s Melville, a cat-quick athlete in a 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame, pitched at 87 mph, but reached back for 93 mph when he needed it and mixed in his curve and changeup masterfully. His feel for pitching was evident, and he allowed just two hits in three innings, though his command wasn’t as sharp as he’s shown in the past. He threw 64 pitches, 36 of which were strikes.

Gray’s command also wavered in his third inning, and he finished with two walks and six strikeouts, tossing 42 pitches, 25 of which were strikes.

“You’ve gotta like Melville’s upside a lot,” said a crosschecker with a National League team. “He actually reminds me a little bit of a combination of (Nationals righthander) Colton Willems, and (Yankees prospect) Phil Hughes. He has the body of Willems with a similar follow-through, and an arm action similar to Hughes’. I could see where he would have better command than what he had tonight, although it wasn’™t that bad, really.

“Gray is a power arm, a lot like Tim Lincecum. That was one of the best curveballs I’ve seen in a long time. He’s interesting. He’s not very big, some teams might shy away from that, but maybe he’s (next) year’s version of (Diamondbacks 2007 first-rounder Jarrod) Parker. I’m not saying (Gray’s arm action) isn’t clean, but Parker was one of the cleaner delivery arms that I’ve seen, even more so than the bigger guys like (Matt) Harvey and (Rick) Porcello.

“Definitely for a smaller guy, he can power it down in the zone and stay on top of the ball, and it doesn’™t seem to flatten out against the hitter. And the breaking ball is an equalizer.”

Both teams brought in prospects out of the bullpen, with lefthander Robbie Ross relieving Gray, and in the eyes of some, upstaging both of the power righthanders.

The 5-foot-11 rising senior from Lexington (Ky.) Catholic High pitched at 89 mph, touching 92 mph on the Baseball America Stalker. His slider was up to 82, and while it doesn’t have the depth of Gray’s power breaker, it has hard, late tilt, and helped him rack up empty swings. Ross allowed one baserunner, on a walk, and struck out nine of the 12 batters he faced he four hitless innings.

Righthanders Will Roberts (Walker School, Richmond) and Mac Williamson (Wake Forest-Rolesville HS, Wake Forest, N.C.) threw in relief of Melville, and both pitchers have projectable bodies and clean deliveries.

  • Gray’s appearance might be his last of the summer in front of a large gathering of scouts. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association informed him that if he played in the Aflac Classic Aug. 11, he would be forfeiting his eligibility for his senior season. Tennessee’s school year begins with a half-day of classes on Aug. 9, and the state has rules precluding student athletes from appearing in non-school-affiliated all-star games once the school year is in session. Gray’s adviser, Hunter Bledsoe, confirmed that Gray would not be able to pitch in San Diego. A similar scenario arose in the game’s inaugural year, 2003, when it was played later in August and five players from Tennessee and Florida were not permitted to play.