But as a pitcher, Pendleton never really had too many people talking, despite consistently stringing together strong outings at the upper levels of the minors. The 27-year-old righty joined Double-A Trenton during the second half of the 2009 season and posted a 1-3 record with a 4.47 ERA in eight starts. But he also struck out 43 in 44 1/3 innings of work, which set the table for his performance the following season.
The friendly Texan started the season in the Thunder bullpen, but after Christian Garcia’s Opening Day elbow injury, Pendleton was thrown into a starting role, where he shined. In 120 2/3 innings, Pendleton struck out 111 Eastern League batters, and earned a promotion to Triple-A Scranton.
In six appearances, he posted a 2-1 record and 4.24 ERA, and put himself in contention to be protected by the Yankees on the 40-man roster. But instead, New York chose not to add him to the 40-man, and he was instead selected by his hometown Houston Astros in the Rule 5 Draft.
After being returned to the Yankees towards the end of Major League spring training, Pendleton pitched well in Scranton and quickly earned a promotion to the big leagues that was once thought to be somewhat improbable given the depth of pitching talent in the organization.
After briefly being sent down, he is once again back in pinstripes, where he’s strung together six consecutive scoreless outings to start his career in the show. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Pendleton in the Yankee Stadium home clubhouse, and here’s how the conversation went…
Mike Ashmore: You spent parts of two seasons in Trenton…generally speaking, how would you say the experience was for you down there?
Lance Pendleton: “It was fantastic there with Tony there as the manager and Tommy Phelps as pitching coach. Really, the whole coaching staff did a great job. I spent this spring training with the Astros, and I don’t want to take anything away from their organization, but the coaching staffs in the Yankees organization, they’re phenomenal. They take their job very seriously and work as hard as anyone as I’ve been around to help every player on the team — no matter who you are or what your role is — to get better. If you’re the bullpen catcher and you’re on the phantom DL, you’re still getting your work in, so if you do get your shot, you’ll be prepared. So it was a lot of fun, and I’m very grateful for the time I spent there and that I was able to improve and be put in a position to be here.”
Ashmore: Tell me about the Rule 5 Draft…did you expect to get picked in that?
Pendleton: “You know, I knew I had a chance. But when the Yankees didn’t protect me on the 40-man, I think it was the same reason why I didn’t think I was going to get taken in the Rule 5: I am older, I’m 27 now. But arm wise I’ve only pitched three years, this is my fourth year. So arm wise, I’m young. But age wise, I was older. But when the season ended, I thought ‘Oh, I’ve got a chance.’ But then, the closer it got, I was saying it probably wasn’t going to happen. It was a real surprise, and a good one at that. It was a good opportunity to go over there and be in that atmosphere. I think that helped mold me a little bit for the opportunity I got up here.”
Ashmore: You’ve seen guys get returned from the Rule 5 draft, and things were never the same for them…when the Astros did offer you back to the Yankees, especially given the amount of pitching they had, were you thinking that your chance at the big leagues was over?
Pendleton: “No, not at all. I got returned, and I wasn’t right during spring training, and that was very encouraging for me, as odd that sounds. I knew that if I was right that I could pitch in the big leagues after spring training with the Astros. I was walking guys, mechanically I wasn’t feeling good. I knew when I got returned, that I’d been with the Yankees for five or six years now, and they know my mechanics more than anybody. And I knew the coaches here; Scotty and Tommy and Pav down in High-A — well I guess he’s the rehab coach now — and I knew that getting returned, I’d get right. And when I did get right, I knew I’d be able to pitch in the big leagues with that experience with the Astros.”
Ashmore: Tell me how you found out you were going up for the first time…
Pendleton: “We were out on the field, stretching…it was April 15th, I will never forget that day. (Laughs) We were stretching on the field, and Scotty kind of threw the ball over to the pitcher’s bag and said, ‘Lance, let’s go,’ and he kind of threw it in disgust. I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?’ Because Banuelos and Betances were just put on the DL, and I’m thinking they’re going to send me down to Trenton to stretch me out to start again. Now that I look back, that wasn’t making much sense because Noesi was in the big leagues and we needed a spot starter in Triple-A also.
“But at the time, that’s what was going through my mind. And it’s a long walk from the field all the way to the locker room. And I was getting livid, I was so mad. I was saying, ‘I can’t believe they’re about to send me down to Trenton. I’ve thrown well up here, I’ve proven I can pitch in Triple-A. I don’t need to go to Double-A.’ And we walked in the office and Miley said, ‘Congratulations, you’re going up.’ And I said, ‘What? I thought you were sending me to Trenton!’ And he laughed and said no and congratulations. So that was a fun little experience, a good little interesting story that happened to me.”
Ashmore: What were the nerves like in that first game?
Pendleton: “You know, surprisingly…well, in about the fourth inning, the phone rang and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be me or Noesi getting up. And Noesi got up. But when that phone rang in the fourth, my heart was pounding through my chest. I thought that guys could see it. But then Noesi got up, and he sat down. Then I calmed down after that. When the phone rang in the seventh and they had me get up, it was the strangest thing in the world. I really wasn’t nervous or amped up or anything. I was just kind of going about my business and it was the same way out on the mound for those three innings. Except every now and then, I’d start thinking, ‘Oh wow, I’m pitching in the big leagues’ and I’d start smiling. It was interesting. But surprisingly, my nerves were pretty calm.”
Ashmore: Did you take time to kind of look around and soak it all in, or were you just focused on the task at hand?
Pendleton: “It happened real quick on that first day, but I’d say I’m still looking around and taking it all in right now. I’m still kind of in awe. But I’m starting to get a little more comfortable. But that first day, everything happened so quickly, and I think that was really good for me, just not to be able to think about it too much because it all happened so quick.”
Ashmore: I don’t really think a lot of people expected you to come up from Triple-A and string together these scoreless outings the way you have…have you, in any way, exceeded your own expectations up here so far?
Pendleton: “You know, I didn’t really have too many expectations going into this. I just wanted to throw my game and try to throw strikes and execute my pitches and see what happens. No one’s going to be perfect. It’s been nice not giving up a run yet and throwing as well as I have, but let’s be honest, that’s just not going to happen. I’m going to get hit and give up runs sooner or later, but that’s part of the game and you’ve got to realize that. The thing that I’ve got to remind myself of is that I don’t have to perfect. I’m not in a position where I have to be perfect every single time. I just need to go out there and take care of the innings and make sure I get through my innings and give the big arms in the bullpen a rest. I need to take care of my job and hopefully I’ll be able to stay as long as I do that.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com
(Portions of this interview will also appear in the Hunterdon County Democrat)