Thursday, May 23, 2013

The one-hitter

Wichita, Kan. -- Shane Komine's fastball hits 86 on the radar gun. 

The scout sitting behind home plate isn't impressed. He's been evaluating baseball prospects for 27 years and hasn't seen many great pitchers throw 86.

It's the fifth inning of Komine's fourth start with the Class AA Midland Rockhounds, and Nebraska's best - ever pitcher is riding a no - hitter.

Rockhounds Pitching Coach Craig Lefferts will say later Komine could've shut out the Kansas City Royals on this night. His fastball is painting the corners. His changeup is a split second slower, confusing Wichita Wrangler hitters. And his curveball is nasty. He's retired 12 batters in a row.

Still, the scout, who wears a World Series ring on his finger, isn't sold. Few are when they first see Komine.

The 5 - foot - 8, 175 - pound right - hander lacks a great pitch and has had a history of back and shoulder injuries.

"You want me to recommend him? You want me to lose my job?" said the minor league scout, who discussed Komine on the condition that he not be identified.

Komine has heard it all before. He's always been the smallest one on the field. He's always won.

A year ago this week, Komine was at Nebraska rolling over Richmond in a 2 - 0 super - regional win. That day he gave up four hits in front of 8,474 fans.

On this Wednesday night in southern Kansas, the only reminder of Nebraska is when "Sirius, " NU's football tunnel walk song, blasts over the loudspeaker before the game.

The number of fans in Lawrence - Dumont Stadium could cram onto the third base berm at Haymarket Park.

Komine warms up in right field, just steps away from "Ye Olde Beer Garden." During player introductions, the public address announcer mispronounces his name (Ko - MINE, he says, instead of Ko - mee - nay).

All of this matters little to Komine, who understands the obscure world of minor league baseball.

Thousands of prospects float through the vast minor league sea each season. Some find a current that takes them all the way to the majors. Some don't have a chance. Most are somewhere in between, drifting.

There are too many for scouts and general managers to study. So they profile players.

"History shows that little right - handers don't make it very far, " the scout says.
Sure, this scout has seen guys like Komine make it all the way to the show. And he's seen can't - miss kids who can't cut it in Class AA.

Scouting is an inexact science. But percentages come into play, and the odds are against a guy like Komine.

Nebraska's all - time leader in wins (41), strikeouts (510) and complete games (18) was a ninth - round pick of the Oakland Athletics in the 2002 draft. This spring at Kane County, Ill., he was 6 - 0 with a 1.82 ERA in eight starts before his promotion to Class AA Midland. In his last start at Kane County, Komine threw a complete - game three - hitter. He'll do better on this night.

His performance is efficient. Komine averages about 10 pitches per inning. It's precise. Fifteen of the 27 outs are ground balls. It's boring and mesmerizing at the same time. And by the middle of the fifth, he still hasn't given up a hit.

Wranglers fans haven't cheered since a fan won a Tony Gwynn - signed baseball early in the game.

As Komine has progressed in the past year, hitters have become more patient. He doesn't have the velocity to throw it by hitters anymore. He doesn't try to.

"You just have to be able to mix it up and hit your spots well, " said Komine, who has the least pro experience of any Rockhound pitcher. "You're not going to be successful unless you can throw breaking balls on hitters' counts.

"Basically, Oakland's philosophy is to get outs early in the count. At Nebraska, my mentality was to strike everybody out."

Ah, Oakland. The same organization whose General Manager Billy Beane has single - handedly tried to revolutionize player evaluations.

Komine embodies the Billy Beane philosophy. He doesn't have a great baseball body, doesn't have the greatest potential on paper, but he's polished and was a proven major - college pitcher.

Lefferts said if a player's doing well, Oakland will challenge and promote him quicker than other organizations. Komine will likely be with Midland the rest of the year, Lefferts said, but after that, who knows?

Wichita catcher Mike Tonis grounds out to end the fifth. Still no hits.

The scout has seen performances like this. He isn't convinced Komine can do it five days from now or against the Texas Rangers.

"He's going to have to prove himself at every level, " the scout says, "because by baseball standards, he is not of the norm. For him to be successful at the highest level, he's going to have to have extremely good control, which I'm sure he does. But there's not a lot of room for error there."

What happens when his command is a little off and that fastball drifts back across the plate instead of staying on the corner? Scouting directors want pitchers who overpower hitters.

"When you first look at him, he's just a little guy, " Kane County Manager Webster Garrison said. "But when he starts pitching, your whole outlook changes."

Garrison watched Oakland starters Tim Hudson and Barry Zito go through the A's farm system. Komine has the same ability to attack the strike zone, Garrison said.

"Shane is not one of those guys with a great arm, " said Lefferts, who pitched in the major leagues for 12 years. "But he really knows what to do with what he's got. He knows what he has to do to be effective and doesn't try to do any more than that. That's a big key."

Komine has changed many a mind in his time on the mound.

In 1998 at a tournament in Hawaii, Nebraska Associate Head Coach Rob Childress saw Komine pitch for the first time. He was 5 - foot - 7, and 140 pounds "soaking wet, " Childress said.

He told then - Head Coach Dave Van Horn, "They'll laugh at us in the Big 12 if we run a 5 - 7 guy out there on weekends."

The Huskers recruited him anyway, and Komine turned into the only 5 - 7 pitcher who made your knees shake. Opponents' scouting reports had his fastball in the mid - 90s, Childress said. It never came close to that.

"People were scared of him in the Big 12, " Childress said.

There's a mysterious side to Komine, who Midland teammate Matt O'Brien calls a "silent assassin." Ask Komine a question and he's articulate and gracious. But in the clubhouse, he doesn't say much, Childress said, which works to Komine's advantage.

The no - hitter is in the back of Komine's mind. He hasn't had one since high school.

Then Wichita's Justin Gemoll bunts to lead off the sixth, and Rockhounds third baseman Adam Morrisey, charging toward home plate, can't make the play in time. It's over.

The crowd won't see a no - hitter tonight, but maybe Komine has won over some of the doubters. The scout won't try to persuade his organization's general manager to make a trade, but Komine's strengths are clear.

"He lets hitters get themselves out, " the scout says. "He knows how to pitch, knows how to set hitters up. That's in his favor."

Lots of pitchers can throw strikes, the scout says. But not everybody has command of those strikes. Not everybody can throw a 3 - 1 changeup for a strike like Komine is doing on this night.

"That's what makes him tick, " the scout says.

When Wichita's free - swinging designated hitter Tydus Meadows comes up in the seventh, he strikes out for the third time in three at - bats.

Komine feasts on hitters like Meadows. The Wranglers' clean - up hitter sees that 86 mph fastball as an opportunity to add to his home run total. It plays right into Komine's game.

"He has the innate sense of when a guy is going to swing, " Childress said.

Komine, who hit a man in the first inning and walked one in the ninth, will end this night with only the third complete - game shutout in the eight - team Texas League this season. It comes six years after a one - hit shutout by Midland's Jarrod Washburn, who went 18 - 6 as a starter with the World Series champion Anaheim Angels last year.

"They really had no idea what to look for, " Lefferts said of Wichita hitters. "They really didn't have a chance. It was a masterpiece."

In the ninth, with Midland up 2 - 0, Lefferts sends a reliever to the bullpen just in case Komine stumbles. With one out and a runner on first, the last thing Komine wants to do is walk a batter and bring the potential winning run to the plate. So when the count goes full on Wichita shortstop Oscar Salazar, everybody in the park is thinking fastball. Komine throws a curveball. Moving a shade under 70 mph, it drops at the last second under Salazar's swinging lumber.

The scout, impressed, raises his eyebrows and gestures to the bullpen.

"Just tell that guy to sit down, " the scout says. "They ain't going to need him."


No comments:

Post a Comment