July 30, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Aaron Blair and his fellow Hillsboro Hops’ pitchers had been throwing so well recently, they were rewarded with a batting practice session on Sunday.
Blair was the only one to hit one out of Hillsboro Ballpark. Maybe Blair’s recurring campaign with his former coach – Marshall’s Jeff Waggoner -- to be a designated hitter may have paid dividends for the Herd.
Blair, however, isn’t in Hillsboro, Ore., because he can swing a bat. After being the No. 36 overall pick in the Major League draft in June – a compensation pick near the end of Round 1 by the Arizona Diamondbacks -- the former Herd right-hander is in the Hops’ starting rotation as one of the D-backs’ top mound prospects.
“Things started out really well,” Blair said Tuesday by phone from Hillsboro, which is a suburb west of Portland. “My first three games I didn’t allow a run (and only six hits in nine innings). Then I had an inning where I allowed six hits and a three-run homer.
“The last time out, I gave up two runs, with another homer. I’m still looking for my first pro win, but I haven’t lost one yet, either.”
Blair is scheduled to make his sixth start in the short-season Northwest League on Wednesday night on the road against the Vancouver Canadians at venerable Nat Bailey Stadium. He’s pitched 2, 3, 4, 4, and 5 innings in his starts to date. He’s not on a pitch count, but an innings count.
“I’m scheduled for six innings tomorrow night, then six my next one, and after that I go as long as I can last,” Blair said. “That’s the plan.”
Blair has a 3.50 ERA with 17 strikeouts and 7 walks in 18 innings. He’s allowed 13 hits, and opposing batters are hitting only .213.
“I haven’t been around long enough to grasp what pro ball’s about as a whole,” Blair said. “I’ve concentrated on pitching and what I need to do. But it’s not too drastic a change from what I did my three years at Marshall.
“Most of the kids we’re facing are guys like me, who just signed out of college.”
Blair, one of 10 current pros produced by Waggoner’s program, landed a $1.435 million signing bonus. He is the highest draft pick by far in Herd baseball history, and said he intends to “wait a while” before making any major purchases, if any at all.
He’s focusing on his craft, working with Hops pitching coach Doug Drabek, the 1990 Cy Young Award winner in the National League, with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Hops also have a couple of other connections to West Virginia besides Blair – to Nitro to be precise.
Former Nitro and WVU quarterback and Major League catcher J.R. House (Pirates, Astros, Orioles) is the Hillsboro hitting coach. J.R. Bradley, a former Nitro High baseball state player of the Year and a 2010 second-round Diamondbacks’ pick, is working out of the Hops’ bullpen.
Blair said he wasn’t surprised Arizona selected him in the draft. The 6-foot-5 Las Vegas native said the Diamondbacks “were the only team I visited before the draft, but then I never heard from them again until the night I was drafted. I had a feeling I’d go there, but I’d have been happy with whoever would have picked me.”
Blair said he and Arizona’s other first-round pick – fellow college product Braden Shipley (15th overall selection from Nevada) – were told after they signed that the organization’s hope was for the two of them to move up to South Bend in the Class A Midwest League before season’s end.
“Actually, I’m not sure what the plans are now,” Blair said. “I haven’t been in contact with anybody, other than our staff here. After that first time, no one has said anything more about that.”
Blair said he also takes some inspiration from a fellow Herd baseball alumnus, right-hander Dan Straily, who is in the Oakland Athletics’ rotation and is scheduled to pitch tonight (Tuesday) against Toronto.
“Dan and I have talked two or three times in the past,’ Blair said. ‘I mean, it’s somebody to look up to. He’s told me that when I’m done with college ball, that’s when the hard work really begins. I’m just getting started, going out and trying to do my best each time out.”
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Elsewhere, other Marshall Baseball alumni are prospering.
Kevin Shackelford is making a great impression in the Class AA Southern League, after struggling last season in low Class A and earlier this season at high A. Shackelford, a converted catcher, joined the Huntsville Stars a month ago and has become a bullpen ace for the Milwaukee farm club.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander is 1-0 with three saves in eight games for the Stars, with a 1.50 ERA. In eight games, Shackelford has pitched 12 innings, allowing eight hits and two walks to go with a dozen strikeouts. Opposing hitters are batting only .186 against Shackelford.
Another notable performance by an ex-Herd arm has been turned in by Arik Sikula with the Lansing Lugnuts in the low Class A Midwest League. Sikula is tied for third in the MWL with 15 saves. He’s 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA in 46 innings (37 games), and has 15 strikeouts while allowing 15 walks.
His fellow Herd alum and Lansing teammate, Ian Kadish, is 4-3 with a 3.60 ERA in middle relief, with 62 strikeouts and only 13 bases on balls over 50 innings (36 games).
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About 15 current Marshall players have spent the summer in collegiate wooden bat leagues, and with those seasons heading into playoff time, a couple of Waggoner’s players have starred in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League, based in the metro Washington-Baltimore area.
Junior shortstop Sergio Leon and right-hander Michael Taylor spent the season as teammates with Youse’s Orioles. Leon was voted to the league All-Star Game and finished the season batting .337 with 6 doubles, 10 RBI and 6 steals.
Taylor, a Herd sophomore, was outstanding on the mound for those Orioles. He went 1-1 with a 0.87 ERA over seven starts (two complete games). In 41 1/3 innings, Taylor allowed only 31 hits, with 43 strikeouts and 12 walks. His ERA ranked second in the league, and he was fifth in strikeouts.
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Waggoner said the 2014 Herd baseball schedule is just about completed, and there will be an expansion in Conference USA play from 24 to 30 games (8 to 10 series).
With membership changes in C-USA, the league lost baseball programs from UCF, Houston and Memphis, but has added FIU, FAU, Old Dominion, Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, UTSA and Louisiana Tech.
That means 13 teams in the conference, with no divisional play. Each team will play 10 opponents once and skip two foes. The Herd will not face Charlotte and longtime national power Rice.
Waggoner said league play will begin with a March 7-8-9 series at East Carolina, followed consecutive weekends by Southern Miss at home, at FIU, Tulane at home, FAU at home, at UTSA, a bye weekend, at UAB, LaTech at home, ODU at home and at Middle.
The Herd will open the season in a tournament at Wake Forest with the Demon Deacons, Georgetown, Towson and perhaps one other team.
Waggoner said plans are for another three games this season with West Virginia, with sites and dates still up in the air.
“The league’s going to be tougher,” Waggoner said.
Eight teams in the 2014 C-USA baseball alignment finished in the top 112 of the RPI in 2013.
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The first of five Marshall baseball Showcases is scheduled Wednesday (July 31) in Florence, Ky., at UC Health Stadium, home of the Frontier League’s Florence Freedom. Sessions are open to any and all participants (pitchers and position players) between the ages of 14-18.
The other showcase stops are set Aug. 17 in Columbus, Ohio (Jerome High School in Dublin); Aug. 24 in Parkersburg (Bennett Stump Field); Aug. 25 at Lexington, Ky. (site TBD); and Oct. 12 in Beckley (Epling Stadium).
Sessions consist of a pro style workout, followed by a game. Participants will have the opportunity to work in front of the Marshall coaching staff as well as other area college coaches.
Registration is $55 per player (the Beckley site fee has not been determined). To sign up, go to the baseball page on HerdZone.com, visit the showcase site 30 minutes prior to the posted starting time, or contact MU assistant coach Brian Karlet at (502) 767-4829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.