SCRANTON, PA. — So close, yet so far.
The New York Yankees needed a spot start in the middle of June, and general manager Brian Cashman went as far as to say that he was leaning towards 24-year-old righty David Phelps to make it. Phelps, who was with Triple-A Scranton at the time, had emerged out of nowhere the previous season, using a repertoire of a low 90’s fastball, changeup, slider and curveball to hold the Eastern League to a .199 average against in 14 starts with Double-A Trenton before earning a promotion.
Phelps performed well in his first taste of Triple-A last season, posting a 4-2 mark with a 3.07 ERA in 12 appearances (11 starts). His 141 strikeouts between levels ranked for second best in the system, and he appeared to be on the fast track to pinstripes.
The first two months of the 2011 season was more of the same, as the Notre Dame alum, who had entered the season rated the 16th best prospect in the organization by Baseball America, had established himself as the top in-house option should the need for a starting pitcher arise. At the time, he’d posted an even 4-4 record despite a stellar 2.95 ERA. And he’d just come off one of his best starts of the year, a June 8 outing against Charlotte in which he shut them out for seven innings and struck out eight.
The culmination of that minor league success, however, was sidetracked when the Yankees opted to sign someone who had just opted out: Brian Gordon. The unheralded pitcher was plucked out of Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and it turns out he would be getting the opportunity in the big leagues. Not Phelps.
It was a situation that didn’t sit well with some in the organization, but after initially being frustrated, Phelps took it in stride. He recalled the emotions of going from thinking he was possibly headed to the big leagues to finding out he’d have to wait.
“It was definitely a roller coaster,” Phelps said.
“That first day, I got to the park, and I was there getting ready to start. George Kontos comes over and goes, ‘Aren’t you going to the big leagues?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said Scotty (Aldred) had just told me I was starting today. Then D.J. (Mitchell) came over and said, ‘Scotty wants to talk to you.’ He had a huge grin on his face. So we went outside and Scott’s like, ‘We don’t know anything yet, but you’re getting pushed.’
“That whole day, I was just sitting on pins and needles, just waiting to hear some kind of news. I didn’t get it. I found out that we ended up signing Brian Gordon, which in retrospect, I was a little upset about it. But it ended up that he threw well, so it was a good signing. I tip my cap to the Yankees, they made a good signing. I’ve just got a little more seasoning to go, and hopefully I’ll get my chance.”
According to Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred, who enjoyed a lengthy big league career of his own, the events that unfolded will actually serve as a good lesson for Phelps and the rest of his pitching staff.
“It’s just part of the process here, learning how to accept it,” Aldred said.
“It really teaches him to concentrate on the task at hand, which is that game that you’re pitching wherever you’re at. Not to be looking forward to going to the big leagues or looking ahead if you put two starts in a row together that are good in Triple-A, I’ve got a chance to get called up. That’s the wrong approach for me, here. You take the approach of one start at a time and try to do the best you can here on any given night, and good things will happen to you. You can’t control when you’re going to the big leagues, that’s out of your hands. All you can do is put pressure on somebody to make a move. If you’re good enough to pitch there, they’ll make a move.”
Although disappointed that it simply wasn’t his time, the personable St. Louis native was able to take some positives out of his brush with the big leagues.
“It’s an honor,” Phelps said. “I understand that it’s a business, and it makes perfect sense. It’s a great feeling knowing that if it would have come down to an in-house guy, they had me in mind. I’ll take that and use that as motivation to keep throwing well. Hopefully, my time will come.”
And despite being initially passed up for a call-up, Phelps was doing just what Aldred told him to, putting pressure on the big league club to make a move. But then he developed tendonitis in his right shoulder following a June 21 start, and he’s been on the shelf ever since. Phelps, who said “it sucks being on the DL,” was Aldred’s most consistent starter.
“David was throwing fine, he was tops in the league in pitching; top ten probably most of the year,” Aldred said.
“He was pitching deep into games, he had a string of about seven starts in a row where he was getting into the seventh inning. He had real consistent outings. We were working a little on delivery issues with him, and getting his slider back to its old form. But unfortunately, the injury set him back a little bit. But I think we’ll be able to pick up right where we left off. He’s a smart guy and he’s got a lot of experience here and a lot of starts in Triple-A. He’s getting close.”
And once he does return, which should be any day now according to Phelps, his focus on the task at hand and not the one down the road will be better than it ever was.
“As soon as you start to realize you can’t get caught up in trying to get called up, you just have to worry about what you’re doing and where you are and helping that team win, things will take care of themselves,” he said.
“I remember telling myself that when I was in Charleston. The same thing applies here. I kind of put that as an afterthought. But you also don’t want to use that as too much motivation, because in my next start I went out trying to strike everyone out and my pitch count went up. I realized I wasn’t helping anyone out. I need to go out and help whatever team I’m on win any way I can.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com