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Underestimate the Royals' Odorizzi at your peril

The Royals' top pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi takes critiquing and fine-tuning very seriously.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mike Odorizzi figured it would be a lark and a lesson, worst-case, that his son would come with his pride in tatters and arise stronger from it. One step back, two steps forward.

 

Jake Odorizzi was 9 years old, a bulldog pup on the mound, but a bulldog nonetheless. A friend of the family was starting up a baseball travel squad for 10-year-olds and decided to give Mike a ring.

 

"He wanted Jake to try out," Mike recalls, "and we said, 'Gosh, those 10-year-olds,' at that time, we (thought) one year was such a big difference.

 

"So we said, 'We'll let him try out, he'll get cut, and get a taste of what it's like, and maybe he'll work harder (after that).'"

 

The day came, the day went. But the expected scenario had hit a snag; The bulldog pup came home after the tryouts ginning from ear to ear.

 

"I made the team," Jake said proudly.

 

"At the time, we thought it backfired," Mike chortles, laughing with the benefit of hindsight.  "But I guess it didn't."

 

At 9 or 22, you doubt Jake Odorizzi at your peril.

 

Up close, the Kansas City Royals' top pitching prospect looks more like an amiable golf pro — lean, lithe, and barely his listed 6-foot-2 in stocking feet — than a holy terror that can spot a fastball on either corner of the strike zone at 95 miles per hour.

 

"Jake doesn't give you the 'wow' factor," says Sam Weber, his old pitching coach with the Highland (Ill.) High varsity squad, "until he releases the baseball."

 

You can see the spin of the curveball as it leaves his hands. You're sure you can time the break. And then, at the last instant, the darn thing dives out of sight. It vanishes, the way a frightened rabbit descends a hole.

 

"He never really had lessons," Mike says of his only son, who's slated to make his big-league debut in a Sunday start against the Cleveland Indians. "I don't know  it just seemed like the pitching part just came natural for him. He's got a real smooth delivery.  Everybody always says, 'Hey, who worked with him, who got him to pitch like that?'

 

"And I said, 'Nobody. Basically, that's him.' And they look at me, and I go, 'No, really, that's him.'"

 

The bulldog has always been a quick study, a conscientious observer of game film and mechanics.

 

Also, his own worst critic.

 

"He was always very mature, even when he was younger," Weber allows. "He's his own coach, in a lot of ways."

 

To wit: Pitch counts. The young right-hander put up a fine summer's work at Triple-A Omaha  an 11-3 record, a 2.93 ERA in 19 appearances, all this in a renowned hitter's league  but he also allowed nearly a hit per inning, often finding himself needing to work out of jams of his own design. As a result, he had a tendency to get too fine, averaging just 5 2/3 innings per appearance and 3.4 walks per nine innings, the highest single-season free-pass ratio on his ledger since Rookie-level ball in 2008 (3.9 per nine innings).

 

"It was really just over-trying," Jake says. "I was trying to not pitch to contact, trying not to let anybody hit the ball, trying to make the perfect pitch all the time. And realistically, that's not going to happen."

 

So he tweaked. But mostly, he just relaxed.

 

"When you miss trying to make a perfect pitch, then it's going to be a ball and you're just behind  you're just getting yourself behind the 8-ball," Odorizzi continues. "Once I started throwing to the plate, working on getting the ball down, things really started progressing nicely."

 

The year's been progressing on other fronts, too. There was the promotion from Northwest Arkansas to Triple-A; the warm welcome at the MLB Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium; and a Pacific Coast League division title. Bonus: In a few weeks, he's slated to marry his longtime sweetheart Carissa in Mexico.

 

"It's going to be a special time," he says.

 

But of all the signature moments, few figure to be more special than Sunday. Odorizzi's expected to draw quite a crowd, and not just the several hundred expected to pour in from his hometown, roughly four hours and change away from the Kansas City metro area. There's a curiosity factor, too: The Illinois native is the last  and perhaps most highly-touted  piece of the blockbuster December 2010 trade that sent All-Star hurler Zack Grienke to Milwaukee for four of the Brewers' best prospects.

 

"I'm sure that's how they kept an eye on me, because I was pretty much the one guy who hadn't had any big-league time yet," Jake chuckles now. "So hopefully, they get to know me through pitching up here."

 

Know this: He won't be intimidated. Nervous, maybe. Respectful, certainly.

 

But intimidated? No chance.

 

"A lot of people say they (see) him on the mound, he doesn't look like he's competitive, he doesn't have that fire," Mike Odorizzi says. "And we just shake our heads and say, 'If you only knew Jake like we know him.'"

 

They don't. Not here. Not yet. But when it comes to the bulldog, they sure as heck can't wait to find out.

 

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com