Late Start Doesn't Slow Down Nationals' Solis

WASHINGTON—Sammy Solis' supposed first full professional season didn't start until May 30 with  Hagerstown. Still, the 2010 second-round pick of the Nationals wasn't wasting any time.

"He's been aggressive in the strike zone and been able to get people out in the strike zone," Suns pitching coach Chris Michalak said.

An injured quadriceps and groin kept the Arizona native Solis in extended spring training in Viera, Fla., for an extra two months. Once he joined the Suns, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound lefthander was having success with his knuckle curveball and a new cut fastball as he started 1-1, 3.93 with 34 strikeouts and 12 walks in 34 innings.

"One injury led to the other, we think," Solis said. "We're not sure if it was the same thing, but they were near each other. Once I got the go-ahead, I rehabbed it and now I'm ready to go."

Solis said the quad injury was not serious enough to require any medical exams, but he later feared he had a sports hernia. A specialist saw MRI results and said Solis checked out fine.

"I went after it a day later," the 22-year-old prospect said.

Once Solis joined Hagerstown, he pitched a bit longer in each of his first four outings, getting 14, 15, 20 and then 21 outs. He earned his first professional win (against no losses) in his third start of the season. Then he lasted just four innings in his fifth start, an 11-4 Suns victory over a Delmarva team he had beaten 10 days earlier.

"I threw 35 pitches in the first inning, which is a ridiculous amount," he said in a telephone interview the next day during an all-star break trip to New York City with teammates Matt Grace and Sean Nicol. "I have had some decent outings, but I want to dominate and I haven't done that. I have some things to improve, and I look forward to hitting the ground running in the second half."

Ups And Downs

Before his two-walk, three-hit showing with five strikeouts in the four-inning stint, Solis was getting more comfortable each time out in the South Atlantic League. His fourth start was a seven-inning, two-run outing at Lakewood.

"That was the biggest thing with him," Michalak said. "We wanted to build up his innings, increase his pitch count. He's done that. He's just gotten stronger and stronger."

Michalak said Solis was on an 85-to-90 pitch count in his first outing and was up to 100 by his fourth. He was expected to stay at about that limit the rest of the season. That would carry through to Labor Day because of the time he missed at the beginning of the season.

"A lot of times, it's not the actual pitch count but how many times our guys get up," Michalak said. "That's a lot more what we call 'ups.' He had seven ups in that seven-inning game, plus he was able to stay out of real high-intensity innings."

Solis has been quick to pick up the cut fastball, which he can throw inside to righthanded hitters. Combined with his low-to-mid 90s four-seam fastball, his change and the curve he learned from his father (a former Notre Dame pitcher), the cutter could become a major complement.

"From each outing, he's getting better and better with the cut fastball," Michalak said between Solis' fourth and fifth starts. "His last outing he threw a dozen to 15 cutters—definitely the most he has thrown—and only one was a ball. He's getting confident with it, and I think it's been a big pitch for him."

Hagerstown, managed by Brian Daubach, finished the first half one game out of first place in its division. Even if top prospect Bryce Harper leaves for high Class A during the second half, the team still has a strong pitching staff. The starters at the midway point were Solis; lefthander Robbie Ray (2-1, 2.01 in 45 innings); righthander A.J. Cole (who garnered a fourth-round record $2 million bonus last year); Grace (a lefthander who played an important relief role on UCLA's national runner-up team last year); and righthander Taylor Jordan (a South Atlantic League all-star with a 8-3, 2.83 record in 76 innings).

"I have a pretty fun job coming to the ballpark every day," Michalak said.

Cutting Through

Though the cutter is far more in vogue now than when Michalak pitched in the major leagues for four seasons, he said he tinkered with the pitch when he was a young reliever.

"I had a little bit of a cutter, but I used it more as a show pitch," said Michalak, who debuted with the Diamondbacks in 1998 and later pitched for the Blue Jays, Rangers and Reds.

For Solis, the cutter is not just for show.

"I've been needing one for a while," he said. "Coming to this level, I need something in the mid-80s—maybe even mid-to-upper 80s—that works on lefthanders and righthanders. Half the time, it still looks more like a slider, so it's still coming along. We'll figure it out."

Solis also pitched four innings at the end of last season for Hagerstown. He didn't agree to a deal until two days before the Aug. 16 deadline. Solis also was drafted out of high school by his hometown Diamondbacks in the 18th round in 2007, but the Agua Fria High graduate opted for a Catholic education and the college baseball experience at San Diego. Solis, from Litchfield Park, Ariz., is part of a family that owns and operates an orphanage in South Africa for children with AIDS.

After signing for a $1 million bonus, Solis had little time to make new friends in Hagerstown. A late arrival again this season, he was hoping to remain a stranger to the Sally League's hitters.

"We want pitch-to-contact approaches, and he has made them put the ball in play," Michalak said. "We're not giving hitters that much information if we're doing that within four pitches in each at-bat."