Beloit offers hope for help on the mound

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2012 - 7:32 AM

The focus is on pitching at Beloit, as the Twins look to restock a barren farm system.

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BELOIT, WIS. - Tim Shibuya may have graduated from California-San Diego, but he grew up in Wyoming, where "you learn to throw in the snow," he said, with a winter so persistent, his high school didn't field a baseball team.

So when Opening Day temperatures reached only 51 degrees in southern Wisconsin, he was especially well-suited to cope with the chill: He wore extra layers. He did some additional stretching. And he, um, knitted himself a nice wool cap.

Go ahead and consider Shibuya, a 23rd-round draft pick who owns a degree in pharmacological chemistry and likes to kill time by knitting, a little different than your average Twins pitching prospect.

"I don't watch much TV, so in spring training, I read a lot, and I learned to knit," said the 22-year-old righthander. "I ended up knitting hats for a lot of the guys because it got pretty cold here. They looked at me a little bit funny at first, but I said, 'Hey, if you're mean to me, you're not getting a hat. Your ears are going to get cold.' "

Shibuya might be unique in a lot of ways, but he is entirely typical of the Beloit Snappers pitching staff in one way: He's quietly effective.

"People talk about [third baseman Miguel] Sano and [second baseman Eddie] Rosario all the time, and that's understandable," Jim Rantz, the Twins director of minor leagues, said of Beloit's most visible prospects. "But we've kind of stockpiled some really good pitchers at that level, more than people realize. There are some good prospects there."

Actually, they're not there for long; already this season, three successful Snappers arms have been peeled off the staff and promoted to Class A Fort Myers. But Beloit's success this season -- the Snappers are 45-36, and in second place in the Western Division of the Eastern League -- might be due more to its pitching than its Target-Field-here-we-come batting order, and that's by design.

A need for pitching

The Twins' stated efforts at replenishing their pitching pipeline in the past two drafts is the reason. Of the 13 members of Beloit's current staff (including one on the disabled list), six pitchers were drafted in the first 11 rounds last June, so there are several pitchers who have had considerable success as amateurs. Then there are a handful of pitchers, including Shibuya and spot starter Matthew Tomshaw, a 42nd-round pick who owns a 2.91 ERA, who have outpitched their reputations and turned themselves into prospects.

"We've got a pile of guys here, a terrific mix," said pitching coach Gary Lucas, a lefthanded reliever who pitched eight big-league seasons for the Padres, Expos and Angels in the 1980s. "Some are new to the league, and some were here last year, and they've meshed and gelled and fed off each other. They have more chemistry than a lot of staffs."

And more success, too. The Snappers' staff ranks third in ERA in the 16-team Midwest League, and third in strikeouts, too. The Snappers have used nine different starters this season, in part by necessity and in part to give relievers a chance to demonstrate their own ability. Each of the four main starters has had long stretches of effectiveness, as if they're taking turns, and lefthander David Hurlbut, a 28th-round pick, is among the league leaders with a 1.53 ERA.

Despite playing half their games in Pohlman Field, which "can play as a little bit of a bandbox," according to Lucas, the Snappers are in the middle of the pack in home runs allowed. And true to the Twins' pitch-to-contact philosophy, the Snappers have issued the fewest walks in the league.

It's not all offspeed stuff, either. "We've got good arms. [Matthew] Summers has got a good arm ... and [Jason] Wheeler, in his first year as a pro, he throws hard," said Nelson Prada, the Venezuelan-born former minor-league catcher who has managed the Snappers for the past five seasons. "Corey Williams is consistently at 92-93 [miles per hour]. Michael Tonkin [now in Fort Myers] can touch 95. Luke is doing a good job of teaching these guys how to use their fastball, and how to mix in their other pitches."

And he's teaching them to be good teammates, too, which the players say has come naturally to this -- ahem -- close-knit staff. In a business where players often compete with each other for promotion as hard as they compete with their opponents, that's not always the case.

"I hate being a selfish player. It's a lot better game when you're playing for each other," said Shibuya, who was sensational in April, allowing only eight earned runs in five starts, but has cooled off lately. "The coaches have done a great job of showing us that if you root for each other, if you play to win and not just for your stats, you'll have success. And you'll get noticed -- that takes care of itself."

Williams, a lefthander with a smooth motion reminiscent of John Tudor, is getting noticed now for his pitching; he's earned 12 saves so far, using his cut fastball and a hard slider, and has struck out 40 hitters in 37 innings.

He was noticed for another reason while he was in college, and it's not a particularly happy memory. Pitching for Vanderbilt in an Southeastern Conference game against Florida, Williams' right kneecap was broken in half by a line drive. While writhing in pain, Williams managed to locate the ball and roll it to first base to get the out. The clip has been clicked on more than 528,000 times on YouTube.

"When I first got here, there were a lot of people who saw my scar and asked what happened. I joked around, told them, 'skateboard accident,'" Williams said. "But they've all seen it now. ... It was very humbling -- it taught me that there could be no more baseball, at any time."

Keeping the dream alive

Shibuya believed there would be no more baseball once he graduated from high school, to say nothing of college. His father is a ski instructor in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and a client from San Diego suggested that the righthander, whose only organized experience was in American Legion ball, walk on at UCSD. He survived the tryout, and blossomed into one of the best pitchers in school history, winning All-America honors twice.

But UCSD is a Division II school and is lightly scouted. Shibuya wasn't drafted after his junior season and expected the same would be true as a senior. "I didn't hear from any scouts, so I was planning on getting my degree, taking a year off, and saving some money to go to grad school."

Instead, the Twins made him a professional baseball player, one who tries to focus on his next start, and not the possibility he could climb the organizational ladder into the big leagues.

"I do feel now that I have the talent to get there, but I'm going to have to work on locating my pitches better, understanding different counts and situations, and keeping hitters off-balance," said Shibuya, whose fastball hits 88-90 mph. "Making the ball move a little more or a little less, being able to move from pitch to pitch -- that's how I get outs."

And that's how he gets noticed. "He's way better than a 23rd-round pick," Prada said. "He's one of the better damage-control pitchers that we have. Our defense has been kicking the ball a little bit, and he keeps from getting frustrated. He works out of it. He competes, he throws strikes. He's a good example for the other pitchers."

This season, most of the pitchers in Beloit have been good examples for each other.

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