FORT MYERS, FLA. – As he anticipated the pass, grabbed the interception and headed for the end zone, Ryan Pressly was a football player. More like football royalty, given his all-Texas status on a defending state champion. But when the wide receiver he had victimized tackled him before he could score — Pressly became a one-sport athlete. A baseball player.
His life isn’t quite so “Friday Night Lights” anymore. But there’s a strong chance it could be “Major League.”
“He’s a pretty impressive young man,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of the 24-year-old righthanded reliever the Twins selected in the Rule 5 draft in December. “He’s right in the middle of it. If he was in a horse race, he’s in the backstretch and he’s doing fine.”
Pressly wasn’t so fine after that tackle in 2006, a play that shredded the ACL in his left knee and ended his football career a month and a half early. Damaging the ligament was far more stressful than losing football, Pressly said.
As a 155-pound defensive back as a high-school senior, he had no illusions about his future trying to make tackles. But knee surgery? That might jeopardize baseball.
“I was a lot better baseball player,” said Pressly, wearing a Dallas Cowboys cap. “I couldn’t hit anymore with the knee, but I could still pitch.”
A shocking development
He had to change schools, just five months before graduation, to do it though. American Heritage Academy was considering dropping baseball, “so I was like, ‘OK, talk to you later.’ I still wanted to play,” said Pressly, who as a junior shortstop at the academy in suburban Dallas led his conference in 23 offensive categories.
“I transferred to a big school [Marcus High] in one of the hardest districts for baseball in Texas. It was fun to play at that level,” even with his left knee wrapped in a tight brace, and Pressly remembers having a surprisingly strong season.
Still, he was shocked to receive a phone call on the day of the 2007 Major League amateur draft, telling him the Red Sox had selected him in the 11th round.
He didn’t consider himself much of a pitcher — “I just threw really hard” — and had planned to walk on at Texas Tech or a nearby junior college.
He wasn’t going to pass up this chance. Pressly signed with Boston and embarked on a five-year odyssey through the Red Sox farm system, never distinguishing himself as a starting pitcher.
He allowed roughly a hit an inning and walked far too many hitters for the Red Sox to move him beyond Class A.
Boston finally gave up last summer and sent Pressly to the bullpen, where something exciting happened.
“I could tell the ball was coming out a whole lot harder than it was as a starter,” Pressly said. “Going an inning at a time, I was cutting it loose, and it really spiked. A couple of times I got to 98 [miles per hour], but mostly 93-96.”
Twins took notice
Intrigued, Boston sent him to Class AA Portland for the season’s final month, and Pressly’s ERA plummeted. He was invited to the Arizona Fall League, and he blew hitters away, striking out 18 hitters in 14 innings with just one walk.
“That got our attention,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. “He was an interesting prospect, and we were looking for good, live arms for the bullpen. I think you’ve seen he’s got one.”
The Twins used the fourth pick in the Rule 5 draft to claim him, a surprising show of confidence — under MLB rules, he must stay on the Twins roster all year or be offered back to Boston — in a player who, like center field hopeful Aaron Hicks, never has played above AA.
Pressly has responded to that confidence by working his way into contention for a spot in the Twins bullpen. He has appeared in seven Grapefruit League games, giving up five hits and one run in 10 innings.
When pitching coach Rick Anderson wondered about his ability to hold runners on, he taught Pressly a slide step that has significantly improved his time to the plate.
Now he might be a couple of weeks from his biggest move yet.
“Everything about my career has been a surprise. I didn’t expect to be drafted so high, I never thought about the Rule 5 draft until the Twins took me,” Pressly said. “I’m just enjoying all this.”