OAKLAND, Calif. — Those nerves were finally setting in, prickling over Dan Straily’s entire body.
He’d done so well throughout the day, acting like it was any other baseball game. But when his spikes ground into the dirt with the first step out of the Oakland Athletics’ dugout, the nervous energy made itself known.
His cleats like perfect conductors, that prickly feeling flowed up through his entire body, compounded by the reaction from the home crowd. Hundreds of excentric souls filled the Oakland Coliseum hours before first pitch.
“The whole crowd erupted, chanting my name,” Straily said, “and I was just going out there to stretch.”
On Saturday night, Straily experienced the support and hope that accompanies the swift rise of a baseball prospect. The adoration and hope already existed — but so did the expectations.
And rightfully so.
Straily set the paradigm for a prospect’s movement through the minor league system. The former Buckaroo baseball pitcher began the season in Double-A Midland (Texas) before a midseason promotion to Triple-A Sacramento. After leading all of baseball in strikeouts with 175 in 138 1-3 innings — more than Detroit’s reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez or Washington phenom Stephen Strasburg — Straily got the call.
A move to Major League Baseball was imminent for the 23-year-old, the completion of a childhood dream.
Straily’s baseball indoctrination started early when the family lived in California. Born in Redlands, Calif., in December, 1988, by the next spring Straily was already taking in Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games with his father and grandfather.
“It started as a desire and it became a passion,” Straily’s mother, Sarah Jackson said. “They’d pack up the diaper bag and head to Dodger Stadium.”
Summers signaled the return of baseball for Straily, whatever the locale. The game accompanied the family to Pendleton, where Straily spent most of his adolescence, and then on to Springfield where he became a starting pitcher for the Thurston High team his junior year.
But pro clubs didn’t fight over the 6-foot-2, 215-pound pitcher as he threw for Marshall University — he’d transfered there to walk on after a year at Western Oregon University. The Althletics selected Straily, a right-hander with a decent fastball but nothing to drop jaws, in the 24th round of the 2009 first-year player draft.
He was pick No. 723.
By the time Straily arrived in Sacramento this summer his fastball could top at 95 mph, but he’d added control. He controlled both his pitch location and each detail of its delivery to the plate.
“Everyone tried to label me a strikeout guy this year. No, I’m a strike thrower,” he said on Monday while watching batting practice for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — his next opponent.
“This year I’ve been the most consistent in my deliver. It’s allowed me to throw a lot of strikes, not throwing things so far off the plate, not missing. The success has just come with the quality of pitches.”
But the pitcher added another thing, said Sacramento pitching coach Scott Emerson. Straily groomed all of his pitches to match the confidence in his fastball.
Both his slider and curveball have the movement and break to abase and humble even Major League hitters. Then a changeup full of deceit lopes in when the batters are looking fastball.
But again, that pitch only succeeds because of Straily’s discipline, Emerson said.
“He had the ability to cover hitters’ weaknesses all over the plate,” the coach said. “He does what a Major League pitcher should do ... When you have the ability to pretty much throw anything at any point in the count, that’s something special.”
Emerson said he knew Straily would make his way to The Show within seeing his first 10 pitches during a bullpen session this summer. But Straily didn’t know until the coach and Sacramento manager Darren Bush told him so.
The pitcher had little expectations coming into the season, believing that he’d toil in Double-A until 2013 when he’d prove himself worthy for promotion in spring training. When Emerson and Bush suggested last week that he play in the fall league in Arizona for more practice, it seemed like another chance to impress.
“I’m a firm believer in wherever you’re at, you’re going to be there for the rest of the year,” he said.
Straily agreed to keep pitching. Bush informed him he’d have to run it by Athletics’ pitching coach Curt Young the next day when they saw each other in Oakland.
“We always try and get a little creative. He got caught off guard,” Emerson said. “He took a deep breath and both of his hands went down to his knees like a basketball player grabbing his shorts.”
Among the 30,000 fans in the Bay Area stadium for Straily’s first start were somewhere between 50 and 80 friends and family members (the pitcher lost count). But the rookie couldn’t think about his supporters in the stands — relatives near and far or his coach from Marshall Jeff Waggoner or his buddies from Oregon with “DAN” painted on their chests. He couldn’t afford to take his eyes off Toronto Blue Jay Brett Lawrie.
Lawrie led off Saturday’s game for the visitors. The 22-year-old third baseman was also fresh at the Major League level with less than a year’s experience, but a big leaguer all the same.
“Just throw strikes and don’t embarrass yourself,” Straily commanded himself.
He toed the rubber of the pitcher’s mound in his black-and-white Nike cleats and readied his first throw. The torque of his pitching motion would pop open the top buton of his crisp new No. 67 Athletics jersey over the course of his next 100 pitches. For now it remained neatly closed, its complementary yellow and green reflecting the Pendleton underclassmen jerseys he wore years ago.
“That first pitch for a strike and it just felt like the world came off my shoulders,” he said.
Lawrie would strike out for Straily’s first Major League strikeout, but not before battling for eight pitches.
Oakland won the game in 15 innings but Straily missed his first big-league win when Toronto’s Jeff Mathis tied the game at 4-4 with a three-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Straily threw six innings with five strikeouts, allowing one run on five hits. A quality start.
But that’s just baseball, he said.
“I don’t give up my run, then we win in nine,” he said.
With the Blue Jays now behind him and the Angels the new challenge to face tonight in Oakland, the 23-year-old who showed up on few scouting reports coming into the season has a new goal. His aspiration of 18 years now complete, something had to fill that void.
“The goal is to stay here,” Straily said simply.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.