Jake Petricka pitched three innings for his hometown Faribault Lakers against the Elko Express on Sunday. He struck out five, giving up two hits and an unearned run.
One week earlier, Jake had spent part of Mother's Day pitching at St. Patrick, against the Irish, the upstarts from a tiny village that made a surprising run to the state Class C title game last September.
A double down the right-field line and a bloop single gave the Irish a first-inning run, causing Petricka to go three innings — rather than a planned two — to get a better feel of his pitches.
As Jake was pitching, his wife, Ellen, was sitting on the emerald hill that rests above the St. Patrick ballpark, and the two kids, Madison, 6, and Oliver, 4, were in the circus of young ones running across and rolling down the incline.
This was a baseball scene worthy of Rockwell, and with a game played in traditional fashion. And now, Petricka, 33 next month, a 6-foot-5 righthander with 228 major league games on his résumé, is about to get in his Ford Raptor truck and drive 1,125 miles from Faribault to High Point, N.C.
There he will join the High Point Rockers, one of eight teams in the independent Atlantic League.
Petricka's pitching coach will be Frank Viola, on the Rockers staff for manager Jamie Keefe since the team started in 2018. His teammates — as the Rockers roster stands today — will include Logan Morrison, a lefthanded slugger best-known here for his failure as a Twins free-agent signee in 2018.
Rather than baseball at its most fundamental, Petricka will be entering the world of experimentation. The Atlantic League became an official partner to Major League Baseball in 2019, primarily for MLB to test changes that Commissioner Rob Manfred figures can help baseball, a sport he doesn't appear to like very much.
The biggest change came at mid-season 2019, when the Atlantic League started using the Trackman device to determine balls and strikes. The Trackman call was supposed to be confirmed immediately by the plate umpire.
The Rockers were in York, Pa. — hometown of Butch Wynegar as all true Twins followers of seniority know — for the first night of games after the Trackman took effect.
Notoriously, our guy Frankie was thrown out in the first inning, for offering non-Sweet Music to the umpire for not correcting what Viola considered obvious mistakes by Trackman.
"Frank Viola ejected for arguing with robot umpire," read the headlines, which weren't 100% accurate, but worth a few giggles.
Petricka will find more quirks with which to become familiar when the Rockers start their preseason training camp Wednesday. The team's first game will be played in York on May 28; the schedule calls for 120 games; and the regular season runs until Oct. 10.
Rules: There will be 15 seconds between pitches and that will be enforced. All four infielders must have their feet on the infield dirt when a pitch is released. When a starter leaves a game, so does the designated hitter, with the goal of seeing teams err on the side of keeping starters in a game longer.
Then at midseason comes the big one: The pitching mound will be moved back 1 foot, to 61 feet, 6 inches.
"What does a foot matter?" you ask. Tell that to a breaking ball.
None of this was high on Petricka's list of concerns as he readying for the drive to North Carolina. What he's looking for is one more shot — throw well enough at High Point to get signed, hopefully for Class AAA, knowing that can be a quicker step to the big leagues than ever with the way pitchers are now shuffled around.
Petricka came out of Faribault High School in 2007 and signed with Iowa Western, a junior college power. "I had Tommy John surgery the first year; I pitched the second year and Indiana State liked what they saw," he scouts.
The scouts then liked what they saw at Indiana State, particularly in Petricka's senior season. He was drafted in the second round, 63rd overall, by the White Sox in 2010.
He was a starter for three pro seasons, then went to the bullpen. He made it to the White Sox in August 2013, then pitched in 129 games with solid numbers out of the Sox pen in 2014 and 2015.
Then came injury setbacks. Hip labrum surgery. The movement (not removal) of the ulnar nerve in his right elbow. The 2016 and 2017 seasons were mostly lost; then, he was in 41 games for Toronto in 2018, with numbers inflated by a couple of clunkers.
The last games Petricka pitched in the big leagues were six for Milwaukee in early 2019. He was back with Toronto in 2020, at the alternate-camp site in Rochester, N.Y., as the Blue Jays played games in Buffalo due to the pandemic.
"I felt really good there, and was throwing well," Petricka said. "The Blue Jays had a lot of young power arms and went with those guys.
"My slider is a much better pitch than it was earlier in my career. When I get into game mode, I feet like it's still there for me."
Petricka had a workout earlier this spring for the Twins and other teams. He was not signed.
Jake is a partner in a baseball academy in Savage. One of those partners, Chad Hentges, was Elko's starter and losing pitcher on Sunday.
"If the Saints were still an independent team, I would've signed with them and stayed home," Petricka said. "To give it another shot, my hand was kind of forced to find the best option in independent ball. And that was High Point."
The headline out of High Point in mid-March read, "Rockers find closer in Petricka." And if the improved slider is moving and if the other pitches are still here for him when he gets in game mode, maybe Jake will wind up in St. Paul after all — and only an 11-mile train ride back to the big leagues.
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As for the independent version of the Saints: They have been replaced in the American Association by the Kane County Cougars, a team that lost its Class A affiliation when MLB stripped down the minors from 160 to 120 teams.
The Cougars are located in Geneva, Ill., near Chicago. They open play with the rest of the 12-team league (including a traveling team, the Houston Apollos) on Tuesday night.
The Saints connection is very strong: George Tsamis, after his long and excellent tenure in St. Paul, is the manager, and he has brought along his coaches: Kerry Ligtenberg for pitchers and Ole Sheldon for hitters.