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Wednesday, August 27, 2014         

LIFE IN THE MINORS


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Sometimes life throws you nothing but knucklers

By Brendan Sagara

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Soon after I awoke things were a little out of whack.

I awoke in my hotel room at the Best Western in Chico, Calif., in as normal a fashion as could be. After spending an hour or so hanging out and watching the Little League World Series, I realized a little after noon that someone in the room next to me was snoring really, really loudly.

Having been in professional baseball now for more than a decade, I've spent far more than my fair share of days and nights hanging out in hotels, yet as far as I can remember, this was the first time I've ever heard snoring of that nature during the afternoon.

I shrugged it off, and got on with my day. After cleaning up, I met our rookie first baseman Chester Wilson downstairs in our hotel lobby for some lunch.

Much like every day I've spent on road trips in my time in the minor leagues, I went foraging for food around our hotel with Chester. Today, we made the 10-minute walk to Panda Express, and then made a quick jaunt to the Ben and Jerry's store around the way. Still, there was nothing much out of the ordinary, but the day just seemed odd.

After a quick stop at K-Mart, we returned to our hotel for about an hour before we headed to the ballpark for the day. I was really looking forward to the day at the yard.

My buddy Darryl Arata was making the drive over from Sacramento to catch our game and hang out. It has been a few months since I've seen one of my closest friends, and I was excited that he would be seeing me at work in game action for the first time. Darryl drove out cross-country with me to spring training one year, and saw what I do in camp. But this was his first chance to watch one of my games.

We also had a chance to extend our win streak to 10 games, with our hard-throwing lefty Harold Williams going on the mound.

But perhaps the fact that we were scheduled to face the Chico Outlaws' media darling of the season in right-hander Eri Yoshida made me a little more eager to get to the field. Talk about something out of the ordinary, and Yoshida fits the bill.

First off, the 18-year-old Yoshida is the first female to pitch in professional baseball in the United States in 10 years. The first female pitcher drafted into the professional ranks in Japan, Yoshida had pitched in seven games this season with mixed results. With an ERA over 12.00 entering the game, Yoshida has displayed grit and command problems in her first go-round in the U.S. professional ranks.

Add to that the fact that Yoshida is a 5-foot-1, side-arming knuckleballer and it is quickly and completely apparent that she is anything but ordinary.

As the visiting team tonight, we got an early look at Yoshida and her knuckler-fastball-slider repertoire. The two most striking things about Yoshida were her diminutive stature and her velocity, or lack thereof.

Even on the pitcher's mound, Yoshida looked tiny. The vision of her warming up immediately made me imagine my mom — who is of similar height — pitching for the Outlaws.

But it was also her lack of velo that was a sight to see. One by one, she slung her 50-something-mph knuckler floating toward the plate, as our hitters tried — sometimes in vain — to sit back and wait for the pitch to get into the hitting zone.

By the end of the night we got to her for four earned runs in three-plus innings, as she issued four walks and allowed four hits in absorbing the loss, as we marched to a 6-5 win.

Harold enjoyed a much stronger outing for us, as he went six strong innings, allowing just a single run on a passed ball, while striking out five Chico hitters to lower his season ERA to 2.70.

The whole thing was surreal. Not much throughout the game seemed ordinary. The wind played tricks on fly balls, the strike zone was oddly shaped, and at times, the game seemed to move in slow motion. To make things even more weird, some guy walked into our clubhouse during the game and swiped our manager's jersey and a couple of our bats. A couple of our guys chased the perp out of the stadium to no avail. All that was left was to file the police report.

The strange tone of the evening continued all the way until the final out of the game was recorded. With a 6-3 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, and our closer Jamie Vermilyea in to put the nail in the Outlaws' coffin, the game seemed all but complete as Jamie pursued his 12th straight save in as many appearances.

But as was the case most of this night, nothing came easy in the bottom of the ninth. Misplayed balls, tough hops and a bloop single gave Chico the opportunity to stage the dramatic comeback. Even our oh-so-reliable shortstop booted a three-hopper and also made an inexplicable wide throw to first on the potential third out of the game.

In the end we stemmed the tide, Jamie finished the game as we clung to the one-run victory. It was a strange day, a surreal day, but in the end it all worked out for the better. I hope tomorrow is a lot less eventful, but ends in the same way.

Brendan Sagara, a Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo product, is the pitching coach for Na Koa Ikaika, Maui's team in the Golden Baseball League.






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