Weekend Dish

See also: Friday’s Daily Dish

There has always been, and will likely always be, a fascination with the knuckleball. As unpredictable as the pitch can be, so too is the path for those who try to master it.

Most recently, Red Sox righthander Charlie Zink grabbed attention nationally after he went 3-2, 3.43 for Double-A Portland during the second half of the 2003 season.

Zink has struggled since, going 1-8, 5.97 at the same level in 2004, then coming back relatively strong for the Sea Dogs last year before falling apart after a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket–carrying a 10.45 ERA in just 10 innings.

Such is the life of a knuckeballer in the minor leagues. Just ask White Sox righthander Charlie Haeger.

“As far as knuckleballers, I look up to all of them,” Haeger said. “I look up to all of the guys who had some sort of success at the major league level, simply because it’™s such a tough pitch to master. Needless to say, the success rate isn’t very good.

“But I look up to guys like Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough, (Tim) Wakefield . . . It’™s just such a rarity that it’s become something that’s kind of on the verge of extinction.”

Haeger is the latest to garner attention for the knuckler, and he has been throwing it well in all kinds of weather conditions early on. In his last start on Friday–in Ottawa–Haeger allowed just three hits over seven innings, lowering his ERA to 0.51 in 35 innings at Triple-A Charlotte.

“It was a little cold, and (the knuckleball) moves so much more when it’s warm and humid,” Haeger said. “The leather just loosens up more and I can get my fingers into the seems when it’s warmer. Sometimes, it’s just like you go out there and see what it does.”

Haeger has had success in every outing so far this season. In his first five starts, he’s averaging seven innings each time out and has allowed just two earned runs.

“I’ve had pretty good control with it so far. I’d say it’s been a little bit above-average,” Haeger said. “But the big thing for me is hitters have been aggressive after it, which is huge. And my defense has been playing fantastic behind me.”

This is a long way from where Haeger was just three seasons ago. The 25th-round pick in 2001 became so discouraged with his lack of development that he left the White Sox organization in 2003. He played golf at Madonna University in Michigan, where his brother Greg is the baseball coach, but worked on a knuckleball that had been suggested by minor league pitching coach Chris Sinacori.

Haeger returned to baseball in 2004 as a knuckleball specialist. He reeled off 14 wins between high Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham last season, and was added to the 40-man roster after pitching for two months of winter ball in Venezuela.

In addition to the knuckleball, Haeger mixes in a high-80s fastball and a slider, which he said he’s thrown maybe 10 times so far this season. As for his early successes, Haeger said he chooses to ignore the results–no matter what they might be.

“I don’t really look at the numbers at all,” he said. “I know that in one bad outing that everything could change at the drop of a hat. So I just go out there every fifth day and concentrate on making my pitches and getting through from hitter to hitter.”

Billinglsey Deals–Again

The Pacific Coast League is perhaps as tough as it gets for pitchers. What may be the best hitter’™s league in the minors eats arms, from prospects to minor league veterans.

Take a look at Giants rookie Matt Cain’s numbers last year at Triple-A Fresno: while he had 176 strikeouts in 146 innings, Cain finished with a 4.39 ERA. But that wasn’t bad in a league where four out of the top 10 pitchers in the league wound up with an ERA over four.

“The only thing comparable in minor league baseball is either the Cal League or the Arizona Fall League,” Triple-A Tucson lefthander Bill Murphy said. “But if you pitched in either one, you have some kind of idea how to pitch in the PCL.”

Don’™t tell any of this to Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley. Billingsley, who was pulled from the Phoenix roster just before the AFL season started last fall, never pitched in either league. And he’™s doing just fine.

In his latest outing on Friday, the Dodgers’ top prospect allowed one hit over eight innings and struck out six in a shutout against Colorado Springs. Billinglsey is now 3-0, 1.59 overall, with awesome secondary numbers: in 28 innings, he’™s whiffed 31 and walked 10.

“One of two things could happen,” Dodgers GM Ned Colletti told the Pasedena Star-News. “One, an opening could be created. Or two, Chad Billingsley could create his own opening.”

Maxwell Impressive In Debut

Justin Maxwell is happy just to be playing pro ball these days.

The Nationals’™ fourth-round pick last June made his debut on Saturday after spending nearly the entire first month of the season in extended spring training.

Staying healthy is a concern for Maxwell, who missed his junior year at Maryland with a broken right arm and then missed much of his senior season with a broken hamate bone in his hand.

He showed no rust in his debut at low Class A Savannah, hitting a three-run homer as the Sand Gnats defeated Greenville, 6-4.

“It felt pretty good because it tied the ball game and got us back in the game,” Maxwell told the Savannah Morning News. “We weren’t hitting too hot in the early innings.

“I wasn’t really thinking about (hitting a homer). I was just trying to hit the ball hard and it worked out.”


Mets righthander Mike Pelfrey made his Double-A debut on Saturday and did not allow a run in 5 2/3 innings against Erie, striking out eight . . . It doesn’™t get much hotter than Tigers righthander Humberto Sanchez. Coincidentally in a start against Pelfrey, Sanchez struck out 13 Binghamton batters in Double-A Erie’™s 1-0 win. Sanchez is 2-1, 1.50 with 41 stirkeouts in 30 innings . . . Indians righthander Cody Bunkleman made his 2006 debut Saturday at low Class A Lake County. Bunkleman, who was expected to vie for a starting role with the Captains out of spring training, stayed back in extended to get used to his new role–the bullpen. “They told me it was the way for me to possibly move faster,” Bunkleman said. “So I’ll do whatever they want me to do.” Bunkleman, a sixth-round pick in 2004, has a 95 mph sinker and complements it with an above-average slider, but his changeup hasn’™t developed–hence the move to the pen. Bunkleman threw two shutout innings in his debut, striking out four.