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Say hello to baseball's unsung heroes
If you’re looking for details on Saturday’s biggest news — Josh Hamilton’s 20th homer, Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s dramatic walk-off blast, the Adam Jones and Miguel Montero contract extensions — well, for once, you’ve come to the wrong place.
This edition of Extra Innings is dedicated to four largely anonymous players, four guys who weren’t supposed to make it, four guys who beat the odds and — if only for a while — are living the major-league dream.
We’ll call it the Daniel Nava Edition in honor of one of baseball’s all-time great out-of-nowhere stories. Nava, cut by Santa Clara University and later by the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League — is back with the Red Sox, and on Saturday night drew the leadoff walk to start their winning rally.
Much as we love Nava, who hit a grand slam on the first pitch of his major-league career in 2010, he is yesterday’s news. Say hello to the new Fantastic Four, all of whom got their opportunities after injuries to other players, and suddenly find themselves with contenders.
Not exactly an unknown; Sutton, 29, appeared in 86 games with the Reds, Indians and Red Sox from 2009 to ’11. Still, the story of how the infielder returned to the majors is classic.
Last Sunday, Sutton got traded twice in one day.
The first trade was from the Braves to the Pirates. Sutton was in Rochester, and had to rent a car to meet the Pirates’ Triple A affiliate in Buffalo. But he couldn’t find a car to reserve, and was in a bit of a panic when his phone rang again.
It was Larry Broadway, the Pirates’ director of minor-league operations.
Sutton started telling Broadway about his rental-car issues, and Broadway started laughing.
“I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about that,” Broadway said. “You’ve been traded to Tampa Bay. You’re going to the big leagues.”
The Rays had tried to acquire Sutton from the Braves for depth at Triple A. The Pirates nabbed Sutton first, but that same day, the Rays learned that infielder Jeff Keppinger had suffered a broken right big toe.
“They called us almost immediately and said they had an immediate major-league opportunity for him,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “We like Drew and acquired him with the thought that he could help us at the major-league level at some point. But we felt the right thing to do was to let him go to the major-league level with Tampa Bay.”
As surprising as the second trade was to Sutton, he said he was even more surprised when Rays manager Joe Maddon batted him cleanup on Wednesday in only his second game with the club.
“I had to look three times at the lineup,” Sutton said. “I saw a ‘4’ by my name. Usually that means I’m playing second base.”
Sutton says he had batted second in previous stints with the Indians and Reds, but never started a game at cleanup in the majors.
Well, wouldn’t you know?
He went 2-for-4 with a double and two RBI and the Rays won in 11 innings, 5-4.
Elian Herrera, Dodgers
Until May 14, Herrera had never been on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, never even been invited to major-league spring training in seven professional seasons.
They needed a super-utility type, someone who could play all over the field.
Enter Herrera, a switch-hitter whom the team had signed out of the Dominican Republic as an amateur free agent in 2003.
Vance Lovelace, the Dodgers’ director of pro scouting, had just seen Herrera play at Triple A. He told general manager Ned Colletti, “This kid is interesting.”
Herrera, 27, plays — in order of expertise — second, third, center, shortstop, left and right. Colletti described him as a “late bloomer” who started to figure things out during the last two seasons. Herrera shows a good feel for all aspects of the game, and twice has drawn walks to spark decisive ninth-inning rallies.
In 38 plate appearances, his slash line is .353/.421/.441.
Maybe next season he will get invited to major-league camp.
Matt Adams, Cardinals
At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Adams doesn’t have a classic ballplayer’s physique.
And in 2009, he signed with the Cardinals for $25,000 as a 23rd-round pick from that noted baseball factory, Slippery Rock (Pa.) University.
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who then was the Cardinals’ scouting director, said that the team actually had Adams rated higher than a 23rd-rounder but declined to take him earlier, knowing that few other clubs were interested.
Area scout Brian Hopkins recommended Adams. The Cardinals brought him to a pre-draft workout to look at him as a catcher. They didn’t like him at that position, but Luhnow said that Adams hit several homers at Busch Stadium, and was by far the most impressive hitter of the dozen or so players who attended.
The Cardinals’ statistical analysts also liked Adams, even though he was only playing for a NCAA Division II school; Adams stood out at that level, leading Division II with a .495 batting average in ’09.
He hasn’t stopped hitting since.
Adams, 23, won the Texas League MVP Award last season, mashing 32 homers and leading Double A with a .566 slugging percentage. He entered this season as the Cardinals’ No. 9 prospect, according to Baseball America.
To paraphrase the famous line from Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” the Cardinals aren’t trying to sell blue jeans.
Adams can hit, even if he doesn't look good in a uniform.
Rich Thompson, Rays
I’ve saved the best for last.
Thompson, 33, was starting a typical day on the morning of May 16, heading to Asa Packer Elementary School in Bethlehem, Pa., to read to schoolchildren.
He was in the middle of his fifth straight season as an outfielder with the Phillies’ Triple A affiliate, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. At that point, he had played in 1,389 games in the minors and had only one — repeat one — major-league plate appearance, with the Royals in 2004.
Then came the call from his manager, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.
“Good game last night,” Sandberg said.
“I’ve got better news — you’ve been traded to Tampa Bay.”
“Better than that, you’re going to the big leagues.”
The Rays’ second, third and fourth options in center field — Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer — all were on the DL. The team needed someone who could play the position, and thought Thompson — with his speed and defense — would offer the most value of the players available.
Thompson, who has three children ages 7, 5 and 2, with his wife, Theresa, said he got choked up when Sandberg gave him the news. He could hear Sandberg’s wife, Margaret, screaming, “Congratulations!” in the background. (Thompson said Margaret is the “team mom” who “does everything short of bring orange slices to the field.”
It took 13 professional seasons, but Thompson, in his second game with the Rays, recorded his first major-league hit and RBI.
How different is major-league life for him?
On Thursday night, Thompson said he went out with some teammates to Abe and Louie’s, a renowned Boston Rays steakhouse. Halfway through his steak, Thompson realized something. He had eaten so much steak since returning to the majors, he didn’t want anymore.
“I don’t think I would ever be turning down a steak — and a good one at that,” Thompson said. “I didn’t think that was a decision I would ever have to make.”
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