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Minor League Notebook

By John Manuel
April 14, 2004

One turn through the rotation, and Alan Dunn likes what he sees out of the rotation at West Tenn.

The Double-A Diamond Jaxx have established a tradition of pitching since their inception in 1998, one that Dunn has enhanced the last two seasons as pitching coach. He and manager Bobby Dickerson have teamed up for a third season and have another staff of big arms.

The 2002 Jaxx featured the likes of Francis Beltran, Mark Prior, Steve Smyth and Todd Wellemeyer, all of whom have reached the majors with the Cubs. Last year's staff was led for a half-season by Angel Guzman before his shoulder injury. Prospects such as Sergio Mitre, John Leicester and Jae-Kuk Ryu also passed through, with Mitre the latest of Dunn's former pupils to help in Chicago. "I got to see some of his last start (against the Braves) because we were in a rain delay," Dunn said. "He was really impressive. His work ethic is off the charts, and that's why he is where he is. His command and his makeup take his stuff up a grade in my mind, because he has a plan and he executes it."

Yet Dunn says his current rotation has a chance to be the deepest the Cubs organization has put in West Tenn. Through five starts, the quintet of Chadd Blasko, Bobby Brownlie, Ricky Nolasco, Carmen Pignatello and Renyel Pinto was off to a good beginning, with a 2.45 ERA in 25 innings.

Nolasco, a righthander who pitched on Tuesday, posted the best outing yet. In a 3-2 loss to Mobile--the host BayBears got three in the ninth off closer Jared Blasdell--Nolasco pitched six shutout innings, striking out eight, walking three and giving up just two hits, both singles.

"We've got a good mix," Dunn said. "We've got power guys like Brownlie and Blasko, although they are different types of pitchers. But they will both light up radar guns for you. Then you've got Nolasco, who's more of a Mitre type. When he's effective, he's not going to blow you away with power stuff, but he's got a good fastball when he keeps it down in the zone. He's also got a put-away pitch in his overhand curveball."

Brownlie, a 2002 first-round pick who is the most heralded of the group, got the Opening Day assignment against Birmingham and didn't disappoint. He struck out seven in five innings and allowed just three hits, though one was a solo homer. The 6-foot, 210-pound righthander pitched just 66 innings in his first pro season last year due to fatigue, but Dunn said Brownlie already has made strides to avoid a repeat of his abbreviated season.

"He was very solid in his first start; the velocity wasn't that 96 you saw in college, but it's really early," Dunn said. "He carries himself like a number one guy; his makeup is such a plus. He was good on Opening Day because he commanded the fastball to both sides, and his breaking ball was the plus that you usually see from him.

"He has an overall plan and knows what to do. His workday isn't just when he pitches, it's the days in between. The preparation in the four days prior to a start is what's going to get you to the next level, and he knows that. All these guys seem to know that."

Blasko matches or exceeds Brownlie in velocity, and his extra 7 inches of height give him a better downhill plane than Brownlie. He filled up the zone in his first outing, going five innings without a walk as he picked up the win. Pinto was knocked out before finishing five frames, but the lefty continued to miss bats, striking out seven in 4 2/3 innings.

Lefty Carmen Pignatello is more of a classic, crafty lefty and is the only one of the quintet with previous Double-A experience--one start last season, when he struck out 11 in six innings for the Diamond Jaxx. Dunn said the lack of experience is the biggest obstacle the West Tenn staff has to overcome this season.

"We're just really young--Blasko and Brownlie are 23, and the other guys are 21," he said. "That's five quality young arms, and you don't see much of that in Double-A anymore."

Well, you do in West Tenn.

Fewer Pitches, Better Outing

In his last start at Delta State (Miss.) in the Division II regionals last year, Dusty Hughes threw exactly 150 pitches. "And a lot of them were curveballs," Hughes says with a laugh.

Hughes struck out 14 in an 8-4 complete-game victory that day and impressed Royals scout Mark Willoughby. The 5-foot-9 lefthander had his curveball working enough for Willoughby to recommend him to the Royals, even though, according to Hughes, it was the only time the organization had ever scouted him.

"I thought for sure the Cardinals would draft me, because I had talked to their area guy the most," Hughes said. "I didn't throw a lot of fastballs that last game, but I did pitch well. It was one of my best games."

Hughes pushed that performance down on his resume Monday night. He didn't get the complete game this time--he needed relief help from Jake Mullis for the ninth inning--but did have his best start ever. The two combined for the season's first no-hitter as Burlington beat Wisconsin 3-0 in low Class A Midwest League action.

(Double-A Carolina got the season's second no-hitter Wednesday afternoon in the first game of a doubleheader at Huntsville. Righthanders Trevor Hutchinson and Kevin Cave combined on the feat, with Hutchinson going six innings while Cave pitched the seventh frame. Cave snagged a one-out Brad Nelson liner off his shoetops to preserve the no-hitter.)

Hughes was in complete control in Burlington's win, as only leadoff hitter Josh Womack got past first base. Womack reached on a two-base throwing error by first baseman Kila Kaaihue to open the game, but Womack was thrown out at third on a fielder's choice, and Hughes got out of the first with a double play. Those were the first two of a stretch in which Hughes retired 22 straight Timber Rattlers.

Only one play worried Hughes, a hard smash with one out in the sixth inning off the bat of Sam Bradford. Third baseman Mitch Maier, still new to the position after being converted from catcher, knocked the ball down, and Kaaihue scooped his low throw on a close play at first. "There really wasn't another close play," said Hughes, who said the postgame celebration was limited to a relaxed poker game back at his apartment.

Hughes' big curveball may have gotten him drafted, but manager Jim Gabella said the key to the no-hitter was the work Hughes did with his fastball. He shook off catcher Adam Donachie, a second-round pick in 2002, just twice en route to striking out six and walking one, in the eighth inning. "Donachie called a great game; he can really catch," he said. "I used a lot of two-seamers, went to the fastball when I needed a pitch and just trusted what Donachie called."

Hughes has worked with pitching coach Tom Burgmeier on varying speeds and trusting his fastball, which has touched 94 in the past but peaked at 90 in the no-hitter. He threw 88 pitches.

"He was in total command," Gabella said. "He was maybe averaging 87 with his fastball, but he changed speeds on it and with everything he threw. He spotted his fastball, had good arm speed on his changeup, and his change had some sink and some tail to it. His breaking ball really had some bite to it, too.

"It was in the low 40s and really windy. His pitch count was in the 85-90 range, and he was there after eight, so we had to get him out of there. Maybe if it had been later in the year, we might have let him finish it."

Hughes throws a wide variety of pitches--in addition to his fastball, curve and changeup, he says he added a cutter and a slurve during his college career--and throws enough strikes to compete as a starter. Gabella said Hughes has good deception, and despite his small stature he keeps the ball down in the strike zone. For the foreseeable future, Hughes will remain in the rotation, along with lefthander Danny Christensen and righthanders Carlos Rosa and Ambiorix Burgos. All four rank among the Royals' top 30 prospects, and Burgos his 95 mph in a brief relief outing on Opening Day.

Hughes knows prospects. A native of suburban Memphis, he played with many of the area's top players both in high school and with the amateur Dulin Dodgers, a consistent AAU power. He lists the Pirates' 2003 first-rounder, lefthander Paul Maholm, as a high school rival, and played with the likes of Mississippi's Seth Smith and Mississippi State's Steve Gendron in his prep career.

He knows there aren't many 5-foot-9 lefthanders in big league rotations, so if a move to the bullpen comes down the line, he's prepared. He worked as Delta State's closer as a sophomore, racking up seven saves.

"I've got a rubber arm. I'm one of those guys who can throw one day and be ready to go again the next day," he said.

Maybe when the weather warms up. On a cool April night in Iowa, Hughes wasn't about to approach 150 pitches--whether he had a no-hitter going or not.

Around The Minors

• Righthander Clint Everts has come along slowly, with the 2002 first-round pick having made just five starts in a full-season league. Heading up the rotation at low Class A Savannah, where he finished 2003, he looks like he's ready to catch up. Everts struck out eight in seven innings Tuesday night, giving up five hits in a 3-2 victory. "His success will come when he throws strikes with his breaking ball and trusts his stuff," manager Bob Henley said prior to Everts' start.

• The Diamondbacks worked Chad Tracy in the outfield for most of spring training, and he made a couple of errors in a game at third base for Triple-A Tucson. But he made three highlight-worthy plays in Tucson's game Tuesday, according to Sidewinders manager Chip Hale. The game's real highlight, however, was Tracy's 3-for-5, five-RBI effort that included a walk-off grand slam in a 7-6 win against Portland. It was his second game-winning homer of the season. Tracy, who dominated the Baseball America Hot Sheet in 2002 as Red Hot Chad Tracy, is off to another infernal start at .520-2-10 in 25 at-bats. "He's just so short to the ball, has such a compact swing and keeps the bat in the strike zone for so long," Hale said. "It's the kind of swing that doesn't need a lot of work to get going. He puts it in play and doesn’t swing and miss a lot. He doesn't swing at pitcher's pitches."

• In his first three pro seasons, righthander Kirk Saarloos dominated minor league hitters. Entering 2004 he was 18-2, 1.98 with 11 saves in 52 career minor league games (22 starts). Conversely, he was just 8-8, 5.61 in 53 big league appearances. Saarloos must be confused through his first two starts for Triple-A New Orleans, however. The former Cal State Fullerton star has been pounded for a 15.43 ERA in a pair of losses. Saarloos has struggled to retire lefthanded hitters with his fastball/slider repertoire in the past, and that was evident Tuesday when Calvin Pickering took him deep for two of Omaha's four home runs. Lefthanded hitters are mashing him at an 11-for-21 (.524) clip.

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