Results tagged ‘ Tampa Bay Rays ’

Replacement for Manny Ramirez, Team Italia’s Matt Torra ends 2013 with Taiwan’s EDA Rhinos.

After agreeing to take Manny Ramirez’s roster spot midseason on the EDA Rhinos, 2005 Arizona Diamondbacks #1 draft pick Matt Torra embarked on an overseas baseball journey he will never forget. After pitching for Team Italia in 2013 World Baseball Classic, it appeared the right-handed hurler’s curiosity and appetite for international competition and world-class cuisine had peaked. With wife Jessica and daughters Isabel and Mia in tow, the young Torra family flew from Boston to Tokyo before landing in Taiwan to begin their adventure in Kaohsiung City, where the EDA Rhinos played their home games. In his 12 starts in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, Torra was one of the league’s finest best control pitchers–allowing just five walks in 78 innings of work. In his final start for the EDA Rhinos in the 2013 Asia Series against the Canberra Cavalry, he once again demonstrated his control of the strike zone by issuing only one walk in 8.2 innings pitched. Canberra slugger Michael Wells spoke of Torra and said, “The guy throwing up there threw some very good pitches, it was tough at times.” Yet the toughest walk for Torra was the one back to the airport, where Torra and his family had time to organize their thoughts before heading back to America. Facing an uncertain future ahead with the season now over, Torra’s agent Jim Masteralexis still aspires to get his once highly-prized client to join the game’s elite and make it to MLB. With over 578 innings pitched in Triple-A ball under his wing while playing in the Diamondbacks, Rays and Nationals organizations, Torra has been on the cusp of the big leagues. With his recent success on the EDA Rhinos, this 29-year-old Italian American is poised to follow the footsteps of Team Italia teammate Chris Colabello in getting to the show. After speaking with current free agent Matt Torra, it is apparent that he is more than ready.

Matt Torra spent the last part of 2013 in Taiwan pitching for the RDA Rhinos.

Matt Torra and his family spent the last part of 2013 in Taiwan with the EDA Rhinos.

Pitcher Matt Torra was a first-round MLB draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Matt Torra was a 2005 first-round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Roberto: You were a 2005 MLB first-round draft pick alongside Ryan Braun and Jacoby Ellsbury. You must have felt pretty good knowing you were the Diamondbacks #1 selection.
Matt Torra: That day was a great experience. It was a day I will never forget. The only thing close to that was pitching for Team Italia in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Roberto: You pitched at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where you led the Atlantic 10 Conference with 111 strikeouts and the entire country with the nation’s lowest 1.14 ERA in 2005. What was the transition like from college ball to professional baseball?
Matt Torra: For me it was a big transition. I went from college ball, only got 10 innings of pro ball before I got hurt and had to have surgery on my shoulder. And then coming back not only was I trying to adjust from college ball to pro ball, but I also had to try to figure out and learn how to pitch tampa_bay_rays_wallpaper-29833again after surgery. For me it took me about half
of a season in 2007 to try to start getting a feel again
for the ball. Once I started to do that, I found success
again, and every year I have just continued to build
on it. Just take stuff that I have learned every year
and try to apply it into my pitching repertoire.
Matt Torra in 2012 as a member of the Rays organization.

Pitcher Matt Torra was acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays organization in 2011.

Roberto: You were dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 and worked under the guidance of Italian American manager Joe Madden. How was that experience?
Matt Torra: I got to meet him for the first time at 2012 Rays Spring Training. He was a great person to be around. He’s polite to everybody. You know, he said hello to everybody. He never singled-out anybody. So to be around him and to be around that organization at the time was great. Everybody welcomed you from the top to the bottom of the organization. And they treated you very well. It was definitely a good experience for me. They treated everyone with respect. Obviously someone in my position as a non-roster invitee coming into camp, you definitely show respect to the more veteran guys and everything. But everyone said hello to you. It was nice just being in there. They all wanted you around the guys. It was a good experience.

Roberto: How was your experience with the Washington Nationals?
Matt Torra: I was really excited to getting back on with Mike Rizzo, who drafted me with the Diamondbacks as the scouting director. And jumping on with Mark Scialabba, who is the head of the minor leagues there. I thought it was going to be a great opportunity with a great organization. I was in the best shape of my career coming out of the World Baseball Classic. But it was frustrating because I got hurt with an oblique strain coming off the WBC. I missed the first couple of months. By the time I reached Triple-A Syracuse, I was more than a month behind the other pitchers in the Chiefs’ rotation. I jumped into the season quickly, without much prep.

Roberto: When you finally got healthy and got into stride, it looked like you had turned the corner and were on the rebound. But all of a sudden you were let go when least expected.
Matt Torra: To get released after I think I finally got my groove going was unexpected. In the long run, it was for the best and it allowed for the Taiwan opportunity to come up.
Roberto: Coming off the heels of paying tribute to your Italian heritage by playing for Team Italia in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, it doesn’t get better than that.
Matt Torra: Yeah, that was a great experience. I began working with the team on February 20th to prepare for the WBC, which began in early March. Everybody was very welcoming. Manager, pitching coach, players, everybody–they were all polite and energetic about the game. It was a great experience.
Roberto: Do want to pinch yourself to make sure that you are not dreaming as you make an imprint in the Italian baseball history books as a contributer to Team Italia in the WBC?
Matt Torra: You try to take it all in and experience it. But you also don’t want to get overcome by it. You need to stay focused when you get a chance to pitch in a game. You don’t want it to overwhelm you, but at the same time you want to remember every single second of it. And know that it was a blessing to come and do this. I started two years ago tracking my ancestry to obtain dual citizenship and everything. For some reason, I just happen to start that and the fact that I could jump on the team was great. Everything just came together for a reason. It was just an amazing trip.

Roberto: You must be a proud Italian American ballplayer.
Matt Torra: I felt like everybody on the Italian team was definitely playing for the team on the front of the jersey. They were playing for Italia. I think that is why we had success in the first two games (defeating Mexico and Canada) and why Italia will continue to have success in the future. But at the same time for a lot of guys it was a great opportunity to showcase what they had. To come out and compete I want to help this team as best I can–whether it’s one batter or three innings–whatever they need me for. I want to go out there and do that. As you know, there are some of us that have not been in the big leagues that don’t get that much exposure on TV. So to have a tournament like the WBC is great for a lot of people. We just got to go out there and stay focused. Once again, don’t let it overwhelm you and know that as you go out there and make a good pitch or as a hitter go out there and execute what you are trying to do. Try not to do too much, and you are going to be successful.
Roberto: As a pitcher, you then have to wipe the slate clean after every at-bat regardless if you just gave up a home run or struck out the hitter. You must remain focused on the pitch you are about to deliver.
Matt Torra: Every pitch matters, especially in a short tournament like the WBC when it matters even more. No matter what happens you can’t change what has already happened. You need to bear down, focus and just execute every pitch. And just worry about that next pitch you are going to throw. Have a good game plan, stick to it and trust the stuff. Trust all the hard work you’ve put into it and know you have the ability to get guys out.
Roberto: So by staying in the present moment and not living in the past?
Matt Torra: What has happened in the past or what will happen in the future doesn’t matter. It’s really one pitch at a time on offense and defense. The team that executes, the team that makes the least amounts of mistakes is going to come out on top. I believe with the talent that I have seen on Team Italia that we have the ability to come out on top in the very near future.

Roberto: Having a coach like future hall-of-famer Mike Piazza on Team Italia must have been inspirational for all the ballplayers?
Matt Torra: It was… When you get to be around guys like that, you pick their brain as much as you can. With Mike Piazza as a hitting coach and a catcher for all those years, as a pitcher you want to pick his brain. What did he see when he was calling a game? As a hitter, what was he looking for going up to the plate? So anytime you have the opportunity to gain some knowledge from a coach, you should definitely take it. You write it down, or you just remember it. And then it will be there and you’ll be on the mound at some point and all of a sudden you’ll remember–hey, so and so said this, let’s apply it and boom–it works! So you have got to take any time you have a chance to pull information, you have got to do it.
Roberto: It’s obvious that the coaching dynamic duo of Mike Piazza and Frank Catalanotto helped Team Italia players offensively to be very productive at the plate.
Matt Torra: They were outstanding. From one to nine and even guys coming off the bench, they all did an excellent job. Mike and Frank brought a lot of confidence to Team Italia. We were on a roll and had the type of energy of being aggressive to execute on both sides of the game to make something good come out of it.
Roberto: So would you consider your time with Team Italia to be your most memorable moment of your baseball career to date?
Matt Torra: In my career so far, participating in the World Baseball Classic with Italia was pretty amazing. Seeing a team come together in a way Team Italia did was unbelievable.
I think me getting that call up to the big leagues will be a great moment for me as well.
I haven’t experienced it yet so I can’t tell you what it feels like. But I know the feeling on the field celebrating after beating Mexico and Canada was something special. It was a special group of guys. We had the right combination of players and the heart and desire to win. Yes, we had some big league players on Team Italia, but we had a lot of guys people didn’t know about. Even myself…where there are some people who know about me, but I am not a big name guy in Major League Baseball. We left our hearts out there. It was big for us. When you’re on the field celebrating, I don’t know if you can get that feeling anywhere else. It was up there. Obviously when my kids were born, you have a great feeling. Getting married and stuff…but that feeling you have celebrating with 28 guys on the field is unbelievable.

Roberto: I couldn’t agree with you more…I remember tweeting something like: third to my son’s birth and Team Italia’s upset over Mexico, it was one of the best days of my life.
Matt Torra: It was pretty amazing…to celebrate twice too on the field back-to-back. I think family events as far as marriage, birth, stuff like that…relationship with God–that’s in one category. I don’t think stuff outside of that can really surpass that. But as far as baseball stuff, what I experienced with Team Italia was unbelievable. It was a great experience, and
I think a lot of the guys on the team felt the same way.
Roberto: Team Italia demonstrated their heart and soul in the WBC. Every person wearing an Italian uniform wore it proudly each game.
Matt Torra: Everybody was in sync and in tune and watching every single pitch. We were focused and ready to go every game. We wanted to do something special.
Roberto: You had a special chemistry and a ‘never say die’ fighting spirit on Team Italia.
Matt Torra: Yeah, you could say we were the underdog. But it came down to who wanted it more. You could definitely see the heart, the will and the desire. You could see it on every single one of the Italian players. It made us persevere and confident. We were focused and determined to make something happen.
Roberto: How proud are you to be an Italian American and a part of Team Italia?
Matt Torra: It’s a great honor for me. It started two years ago when I began to research and find my great grandfather Giuseppe Torra’s birth certificate from Valenza, Italy and my great grandmother’s birth certificate. And find their marriage license from 1920, and then find the ships they came over on and everything. Once you start researching, you start seeing where you are from and everything. It’s an incredible feeling. It’s a great honor, and I’m very proud to have represented Italia in the WBC.
Roberto: It shows and I wish you the best in your career. Rest assured I will be there when you make your MLB debut. God bless you and your family. Thank you for your time today.
I look forward to meeting up with you again soon.
Matt Torra: Anytime…let me know. Thank you very much.

Top 40 Americans in the ABL (#1-10)

AT40In the final installment of the Top 40 Americans in the ABL series, we now feature the very best import players (#1-10) hailing from the U.S.A. It has been a rewarding experience interacting with players, coaches, scouts, front office staff, media representatives and baseball fans to put together this rather ambitious undertaking. Congratulations to 2013 ABL Champ Canberra Cavalry!

By clicking above, witness the resilience of Top 40 American in the ABL Honorable Mention Antonio Callaway and the thrilling comeback of 2013 ABL Champion Canberra Cavalry in the regular season against former MLB reliever Dae-Sung Koo of the Sydney Blue Sox. Special thanks to Canberra’s CHARGE TV for streaming live coverage all season long with
the excellent play-by-play commentary of ABC Grandstand’s “Strike Zone” host Chris Coleman and his team of supporters including Top American GM in the ABL Thom Carter.

#10 Brian Grening of the Canberra Cavalry was interviewed by Fox Sports after game 1 of the ABL Championships Series. (Ben Southall / SMP Images)

#10 Brian Grening of the Canberra Cavalry was interviewed by Fox Sports after being named Player of the Game in ABL Championship Series Game 1. (Ben Southall / SMP Images / ABL)

#10 Brian Grening of the Canberra Cavalry

#10 Brian Grening of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

#10 Brian Grening of the Canberra Cavalry has always kept MLB caliber talent close by his side. The former 2008 Cleveland Indians draft pick was teammates with ABL Triple Crown winner and recently signed San Diego Padres prospect Adam Buschini as well as St. Louis Cardinals prospect and Top 40 American in the ABL Adam Melker (#23) in 2007-08 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. More recently the 27-year-old Newport Beach, California native was teammates with fellow Cavalry pitchers and Top 40 Americans in the ABL Sean Toler (#32) and Dustin Loggins (#40) along with one-time Atlanta Braves/Kansas City Royals prospect Steve Kent while playing independent ball for the 2012 Kansas City T-Bones. As a starter in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball last year, he registered a career-high 113 strike outs–while picking up ten wins with a 3.69 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. He was equally as impressive in the ABL last season, making 23 relief appearances and striking out 43 batters in 43.2 innings of work.

#10 Brian Grening pitching for Team World  in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game at Melbourne's Altona Stadium. (Scott Powick / SMP Images)

#10 Brian Grening pitching for Team World against Team Australia in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game at Melbourne’s Altona Stadium. (Scott Powick/SMP Images/ABL)

In addition to his critical postseason victory in ABL Championship Series Game 1 against former two-time champ Perth Heat, the hard-throwing right-hander posted a 4-2 record in regular season action with a 2.87 ERA. The ABL Team World All-Star pitcher was a mentor for the slew of first-time American imports to Canberra. First-year Cavalry manager Michael Collins praised Grening for developing into the team’s top starting pitcher and taking on a leadership role with the club’s rookies. Collins said, “Brian’s been huge. He came here last year as a bit of everything. He came back strong and was our number one starter this year. He really led these new guys and was comfortable in everything he did.” Grening felt home field advantage with the Canberra fans suffocated Perth’s chances of a Heat three-peat. He said, “When you get it on, the place erupts, it makes you feel like you’re on top of them. It’s way more detrimental to the other team when the whole place is right on top of you, so awesome crowd, the best I’ve ever seen in Australia,
best fans in the ABL…”

#9 James Robbins of the Sydney Blue Sox (Photo courtesy of Steve Bell / SMP Images / ABL)

#9 James Robbins of the Sydney Blue Sox (Photo courtesy of Steve Bell / SMP Images / ABL)

#9 James Robbins of the Sydney Blue Sox is an aspiring Detroit Tigers prospect

Aspiring Detroit Tigers prospect #9 James Robbins

Upon the recommendation of Sydney Blue Sox recruiter and ex-Minnesota Twins third baseman Glenn Williams–who was was inducted in the Baseball Australia’s Hall of Fame and won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens–#9 James Robbins from
the Detroit Tigers Single-A Advanced affiliate Lakeland Flying Tigers was summoned to play in New South Wale’s capital city. He was the most prized and highly-touted player of Sydney’s five American imports, including Top 40 Americans in the ABL J.D Williams (#29) and Tyler Herr (#23) as well as Zach Penprase (#20) and Geoff Klein (#13). SydneyBlueSox

sydney-blue-sox

Robbins, alongside former Sydney Blue Sox and 2012 Top 20 American in the ABL Tyler Collins (#9), led Lakeland to a Florida State League Championship after appearing in 124 games last year. The left-handed hitting DH and first baseman made his pro debut at 18 when he played for the Rookie Gulf Coast League Tigers and was ranked the 29th best prospect in the Tigers organization by Baseball America. A 30th round pick by Detroit in the 2009 draft out of Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, Washington, the 22-year-old was third for Sydney in batting average (.298), slugging (.461) and RBI (26).

#8 Jack Murphy @jackmurphy219 twitter profile photo

#8 Jack Murphy @jackmurphy219 twitter profile photo with his loyal Aussie fan club

#8 Jack Murphy of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

#8 Jack Murphy of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

#8 Jack Murphy of the Canberra Cavalry was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 31st round of the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Excellent behind the plate, the 24-year-old Sarasota, Florida-born catcher possesses a .993 fielding percentage (better than any catcher in the MLB Hall of Fame). Throwing out 29 of 76 baserunners (38%) while finding his power stroke and hitting 10 home runs in 2012 at Single-A Advanced Dunedin, Murphy had a breakout season prior to joining the Canberra Cavalry. He caught fire against the Melbourne Aces in ABL Round Four action–during which he went 9-for-17 with a home run, a double and five RBI–and was subsequently chosen to represent Team World in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game. Third on the 2012-13 Cavalry staff in doubles (11), home runs (5) and RBI (24), the Toronto Blue Jays prospect posted a respectable .304 batting average and a .480 slugging percentage.

#7 Kody Hightower shares a laugh with catcher Geoff Klein. (Photo by Joe Vella / SMP Images)

#7 Michael Ohlman shares a laugh with Geoff Klein. (Joe Vella/SMP Images/ABL)

#7 Michael Ohlman of the Perth Heat received a $995,000 signing bonus after being chosen by the Baltimore Orioles in the 11th round of the 2009 draft out Florida’s Lakewood Ranch High School. Ohlman finished the 2012 season with the Single-A Delmarva on a roll. He batted .304 with 16 doubles, two home runs and 28 RBI in 51 games. He reached base in 47 of his 50 starts and led the team with a .411 on-base percentage. The MLB prospect will likely start 2013 at Single-A Advanced Frederick, where Perth teammates–Top American in the ABL Brenden Webb (#18) and Aussie Alan de San Miguel–played last year. Hoping to lead Perth to its third-straight ABL Championship title, the
22-year-old Ohlman and San Miguel split time between first base and catcher with the Heat. Having the best overall ABL campaign of the three Baltimore farmhands, Ohlman hit .317 with six home runs and 27 RBI in 43 regular season games and hit .467 in the postseason.
#7 Michael Ohlman of the Perth Heat (Photo by Ryan Schembri / SMP Images)

#7 Michael Ohlman of the Perth Heat (Photo courtesy of Ryan Schembri/SMP Images/ABL)

#6 Ryan Stoval batting for Team World in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game. (Scott Powick / SMP Images) Diamondbacks organization. (

#6 Ryan Stovall at bat for Team World in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game. (Scott Powick/SMP Images)

#6 Ryan Stovall of the Canberra Cavalry signed on with ACT Baseball club Tuggeranong Vikings after a try-out with the Arizona Diamondbacks aspiring to make it in the ABL and eventually to MLB. Cavalry manager Michael Collins learned of the 25-year-old Florida native in no time and officially added him to the Canberra roster after making an impression in the New Zealand national team exhibition series. It was the second time an import playing for a local club has made an instant impact for the Cavalry as fellow Top 40 American in the ABL Kody Hightower had been recruited by Canberra from the Ainslie-Gungahlin Bears in 2011. Originally selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 19th round of the 2009 draft out of Georgia’s Thomas University, he played for Single-A Advanced Wilmington Blue Rocks in two of his three seasons in the Royals organization before being delisted in 2011. Appearing in 80 games for the American Association of Independent Baseball 2012 Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, Stovall was a very well-seasoned utility player who saw time at first, second, and third as well as all three outfield positions.
#6 Ryan Stovall of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo courtesy of Joe Vella / SMP Images / ABL)

#6 Ryan Stovall of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo courtesy of Joe Vella / SMP Images / ABL)


Ryan Stovall of the Canberra Cavalry (Ben Southall / SMP Images / ABL)

Ryan Stovall of the Cavalry is now an Arizona Diamondbacks prospect. (Ben Southall / SMP Images / ABL)

The Team World ABL All-Star was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks after a few weeks of ABL action. He was also named ABL Player of the Week for Round Nine during which time he led the league with the best batting average. While playing away against the Perth Heat, Stovall went 9-for-20 (.450) with two home runs, two doubles, a triple, and seven RBI. His off-the-charts performance spurred a big momentum swing for the Cavalry as they took three of four games from the league’s 2011 and 2012 Claxton Shield champions to move into clear sole possession of first place. While sporting a .320 batting average in the ABL, Stovall
was the leader in triples (4), runner-up in slugging percentage (.582), and third in runs (32). He was rewarded for his hard work in Australia and in indy ball by getting his contract purchased by a Major League Baseball franchise. “Ryan does a lot of good things on the baseball field,” said RedHawks manager Doug Simunic. “He can play all over the field, swings the bat well and is a plus runner. Hopefully he can go to Arizona and work his way up in their organization.”

#5 Ryan Stovall of the Canberra Cavalry being congratulated by teammates after hitting a home run in ABL Championship Game 2 against the Perth Heat.  (Ben Southall / SMP Images)

#6 Ryan Stovall of the Canberra Cavalry being congratulated by teammates after hitting a
home run in ABL Championship Game 1 against the Perth Heat. (Ben Southall / SMP Images)


#5 Kody Hightower of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

Kody Hightower of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

#5 Kody Hightower of the Canberra Cavalry is an unsung American hero, who after being disregarded by U.S. professional baseball retreated to the European leagues and has since been a fixture as one of the continent’s most adored and cherished elite superstar players. Here’s the lowdown on MLB’s MIA Kody Hightower. After being selected as a
NAIA All-America Honorable Mention at Brevard College in North Carolina, he was named to the 2008 Southern States Athletic All-Conference team, NAIA Region 13 team, and the NCCAA All-South team in addition to being an All-American and the NCCAA South Region Player of the Year in his final two seasons at Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina. He posted a .427 batting average with six home runs, seven triples,
16 doubles, 61 runs scored and 64 RBI in 58 games during his 2008 collegiate campaign. Despite his stellar year, he was completely ignored in the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft.

Witness the speed of #5 Kody Hightower when he legs out this inside-the-park home run off #14 Anthony Claggett (of Top 40 Americans in the ABL fame) in 2013 ABL Championship Game 1 by clicking HERE and when he sprints around the bases after launching a leadoff homer off Detroit Tigers prospect Warwick Saupold in ABLCS Game 2 by clicking HERE.

Kody Hightower celebrates the Canberra Cavalry receiving the Claxton Shield after winning the 2013 ABL Championship Series. (Ben Southall/SMP Images)

Kody Hightower celebrates the Canberra Cavalry receiving the Claxton Shield after winning the 2013 ABL Championship Series. (Photo courtesy of Ben Southall / SMP Images / ABL)

#5 Kody Hightower of the Canberra Cavalry represented Team World in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game ( Scott Powick / SMP Images)

#5 Kody Hightower of the Canberra Cavalry was the Team World shortstop and leadoff
hitter in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game. (Photo courtesy of Scott Powick/SMP Images/ABL)

#7 Kody Hightower of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Geoffrey Chang /Canberra Times)

#5 Kody Hightower of the Canberra Cavalry
(Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Chang/Canberra Times)

Winner of the Cavalry ABL Fan Choice Award two years straight, Hightower ended the 2011-12 season with a .361 batting average (third in the ABL) and was equally as impressive this past season with a .325 batting average (fourth in the ABL). At the time he was named ABL Player of the Week for Round Seven, Canberra’s 27-year-old spark plug was leading
the Cavalry and the ABL with a .406 batting average. Igniting the league’s best offense–which finished nearly thirty points higher (.295 batting average) than second place Perth (.267 batting average), the Cavalry shortstop went 11-for-17 (.647) with two doubles, two home runs, three runs scored and six RBI in four games against the Melbourne Aces during ABL Round Seven competition.

#4 Virgil Vasquez of the Perth Heat

#4 Virgil Vasquez, ace of the Perth Heat
(Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

#4 Virgil Vasquez of the Perth Heat credits qigong–an ancient Chinese regimen of body, breath, and mental training exercises–for transforming his career and the reason for his second chance in the Bigs. “It’s an opening to find out more of who I am. With the qigong and the meditation, I’m just living life with a different attitude–without fear and trying to enjoy every moment,” said the Heat pitcher and recently signed Minnesota Twins minor leaguer. “It’s made me realize you never really know how you’re going to end up with the dream you hold in your mind. Just allow the path that you’re on to keep going and know that you’re going to end up where you’re supposed to be.” His path led him to Minnesota via Melbourne, where his zen-like pitching sent a renowned Twins scout into nirvana. Vasquez said, “The story is I was pitching in Melbourne. There’s a guy called Howie Norsetter over there who signed Luke Hughes and a few other Perth boys. He watched me pitch and liked what he saw. He turned my name in,
and it happened just a few days later.”

Pitcher Virgil Vasquez made his MLB debut on May 13, 2007 for the Detroit Tigers.

Pitcher Virgil Vasquez made his MLB pitching
debut for the Detroit Tigers on May 13, 2007.

Starting for the Perth Heat in nine games, the ABL Team World All-Star hurler recorded four victories and 55 stikeouts in 61.2 innings of work with
a 2.77 ERA. Picked by the Detroit Tigers in the 7th round of the 2003 MLB draft out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Southern Californian spent three years in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut in 2007. After signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009 and making seven starts, Vasquez was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010. At Triple-A Durham, he went 6-2 with a 4.88 ERA in 12 starts. Signed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the winter of 2010, Vasquez was subsequently released at 2011 Angels Spring Training. He pitched for the indy Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in 2012 before heading to Perth. Now in his 11th pro baseball season, the 30-year-old veteran hopes to start at Triple-A Rochester before gravitating toward his imminent return to MLB in Minnesota.

Virgil Vasquez and Ryan Spilborghs (Colorado Rockies) at the 2010 Santa Barbara International Film Festival (Santa Barbara Independent)

Santa Barbara baseball legends Virgil Vasquez/Ryan Spilborghs in 2010 (Photo by Paul Wllman/
Santa Barbara Independent)

“You always hear there are scouts and
affiliated coaches in Australia. There’s
always people watching you, and that’s
what I’ve always known and told people.
No matter where you play, just go and play
and enjoy yourself and love the game. There’s
always someone watching you, so if you play
with Heat and play with passion, if it’s meant
to be, it’s meant to be. I’m very excited, it’s
been a long fun road and I’ve enjoyed every moment. I’ve just got to thank the Heat, the organization and especially my teammates.
They’ve been behind me all the way and
without them I can’t get any outs as they
make all the plays. Fish, Lloydy and all of
the guys, even my family back home as
well–it’s been a real privilege to be here.”


Virgil Vasquez worked with Perth Heat pitching coach and former World Series Champion Graeme Lloyd to recapture his MLB form. (Photo courtesy of Theo Fakos / PerthNow

Virgil Vasquez worked with Perth Heat pitching coach and former World Series Champion
reliever Graeme Lloyd to recapture his MLB form. (Photo courtesy of Theo Fakos/Perth Now)

#3 Jeremy Barnes of the Canberra Cavalry

Cleanup hitter Jeremy Barnes represented Team World in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game. (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

#3 Jeremy Barnes of the Canberra Cavalry was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 11th round of the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The infielder spent four years in the minor leagues and reached as high as Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Former Cavalry manager Steve Schrenk, a pitching coach in the Phillies organization, recruited Barnes to play in the ABL and become Canberra’s third baseman after the Phillies released Barnes at the conclusion of the 2012 season. The Texas-born slugger’s stats were among the best in the ABL: 16 doubles (1st); 32 RBI, .423 on-base percentage and .989 on-base plus slugging (2nd); 57 hits, seven home runs, .343 batting average and .566 slugging (3rd). Barnes has focused on producing rather than worrying about being picked up by another MLB team. “I can hit .350, but if there’s no spots or no interest, I can’t control that,”
he said. “All I can do is put up numbers, and hopefully it happens. It can drive you crazy, but it’s all part of the business.”

#3 Jeremy Barnes of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo courtesy of Ben Southall  /SMP Images / ABL)

#3 Jeremy Barnes of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo courtesy of Ben Southall/SMP Images/ABL)

Experience firsthand the power of ABL All-Star Jeremy Barnes‘ bat by clicking HERE.

Pitcher Chris Smith (Steve Bell/SMP Images)

Newly signed New York Yankees pitching prospect Chris Smith (Steve Bell/SMP Images/ABL)

Named ABL Pitcher of the Week for Rounds Seven and Nine, #2 Chris Smith of the Brisbane Bandits crushed hitters in Australia. The Kentucky native threw seven innings of one-hit ball with 11 strikeouts on December 14th against the Adelaide Bite, and returned just two weeks later for a memorable encore performance by pitching a complete shutout with a new ABL record 15 strikeouts versus the Melbourne Aces. In his nine starts for the Brisbane Bandits, the 24-year-old right-hander had the ABL’s lowest WHIP (.85)–while posting a 3-3 record with a 2.31 ER and a 65:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 50.2 innings. The former Kentucky Wesleyan College outfielder and closer set a Panther season record with eight saves during his senior year. Ranking in KWC’s all-time Top 10 in six pitching and hitting categories, Smith broke college records for most games played and starts (187). As a 2012 indy Frontier League Washington Wild Things starting pitcher, the Yankees prospect led the team in starts (19), wins (nine), innings pitched (129) and strikeouts (116).
#2 Chris Smith of the Brisbane Bandits (Scott Powick/SMP Images/ABL)

#2 Chris Smith of the Brisbane Bandits (Scott Powick/SMP Images)

#1 Adam Buschini of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

#1 Adam Buschini of the Canberra Cavalry (Photo by Adam East/ozcards.blogspot.com)

Ironically, our top American in the ABL–
#1 Adam Buschini of the Canberra Cavalry–was not named to Team World in the 2012 ABL All-Star Game. Yet, Buschini was awarded the first-ever ABL Triple Crown for his heroic 2012-13 ABL regular season. The Triple Crown–awarded to a player who has the highest batting average, the most home runs and driven in the most runs in a season–is one of the game’s rarities. The Triple Crown has only been achieved 16 times in over 130 years of MLB history. The 25-year-old Northern California-based slugger claimed the ABL Triple Crown with a .363 batting average, a league record-tying 15 homers, and an ABL record-breaking 50 RBI in just 45 games. He was named ABL Player of the Week twice. In ABL Round 10 action, Buschini went 8-for-17 (.471) with a double, three home runs and 9 RBI. As if that was not impressive enough, he exploded in ABL Round 13 when he went 9-for-15 (.600) with four homers and 9 RBI to help the Cavalry claim the top playoff spot.

See ABL Triple Crown Winner and #1 Adam Buschini in action by clicking HERE and HERE.

#3 Adam Buschini (Ben Southall / SMP Images / ABL)

#1 Adam Buschini was overlooked in voting for the 2012 ABL All-Star Game. (Ben Southall / SMP Images)

Buschini was selected in the fourth round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft by the Phillies out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In his final season for the Mustangs, Buschini hit .422–which is the school’s Division I record. He was a career .336 hitter in college from 2006-09 despite missing the 2008 season due to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Canberra general manager Thom Carter said, “Here’s a kid who was drafted high in the fourth round by the Phillies, had some injury problems and got cut. He played two years of excellent independent ball, came out here hoping to get seen and was seen.” Recommended to the Padres by Canberra manager Michael Collins–a former Padres minor league catcher who manages the organization’s Dominican League and Arizona League teams–San Diego picked up the remaining three years of the contract Buschini originally signed with the Phillies in 2009. San Diego vice president of player development and international scouting Randy Smith said, “Quite frankly, he tore it up. He had very good numbers, runs well, is a good athlete. So we gave him a Spring Training invite. We’ll see what he can do.”
#1 Adam Buschini of the Canberra Cavalry is congratulated by American teammates Jeremy Barnes and Ryan Stovall. (Ryan Schembri/SMP Images/ABL)

#1 Adam Buschini of the Canberra Cavalry and the San Diego Padres organization is congratulated by Americans Jeremy Barnes and Ryan Stovall after the first of his two
homers against the Adelaide Bite on January 26, 2013. (Ryan Schembri/SMP Images/ABL)


#1 American in the ABL and Triple Crown Winner Adam Buschini and his mother hold the Claxton Shield after winning the 2013 ABL Championship Series Narrabundah Ballpark, Canberra, ACT, Australia on February 9, 2012. (Ben Southall/SMP Images/ABL)

#1 American in the ABL/Triple Crown Winner Adam Buschini holds the Claxton Shield with his mother after winning the 2013 ABL Championship Series at the Fort at Narrabundah Ballpark in Canberra on February 9, 2012. (Ben Southall/SMP Images/ABL)

SanDiegoPadres

Italian coaching, cuisine, and culture make Italy world-class for MLB hopefuls and European scouts

Baseball in Italy received a Major League surprise last month when an unannounced MLB manager graced the 436 registered attendees with his presence at the Italian Coaches Convention Dinner at Castelnuovo de Garda (Verona). Tampa Bay manager Joe Madden, a first-generation Italian-American whose father was born in Italy, was overjoyed by the warm reception received at the gala dinner which pays tribute to the coaches that make a difference in the internationalization of baseball in Italy. Madden exclaimed, “I feel at home here, because in the small city in Pennsylvania where I live there is a big Italian community.”

Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Madden embraces his Italian roots.

His grandparents original surname was Madonnini, but after emigrating from the Region of Abruzzo to America
their last name was shortened. Maddon continued, “It is always a pleasure for me to visit Italy. I am proud of my heritage.” The Rays were very well represented in Italy as Maddon brought along members of his coaching staff to lead instructional clinics for the delegation of Europe’s best coaches.

Italian National team coach Mike Piazza (shown here as coach of Team U.S.A.) and Seattle Mariners Alex Liddi (shown here playing for Team World) in the 2011 All-Star Futures Game

Alex Liddi became Italy's first successful export to MLB and the Seattle Mariners on September 7, 2011.

Riccardo Fraccari, president of the Federation of Italian Baseball and Softball (FIBS), spoke of Alex Liddi becoming the first Italian-born and developed player to play Major League Baseball and its great significance to baseball in Italy. He said, “Alex’s story is really the tip of the iceberg, and we really need to take into account the daily work of the coaches in Italy who are the base of the movement.” Liddi was signed by the Seattle Mariners after being selected to attend the inaugural MLB International European Academy in 2005 and in September 2011 became the first graduate of the MLB International European Academy to play in the Major Leagues.

Italian National team coach Bill Holmberg encourages New York Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli sitting next to Alex Liddi during the World Baseball Classic.

Like a fine Italian wine, MLB / FIBS Italian Academy Director and Field Coordinator Bill Holmberg has been getting better with age by improving the quality of Italian baseball and coaching Europe's finest players since landing in Italy in 1989.

Bill Holmberg is one such coach that FIBS President Fraccari was referring to in his compelling speech. Holmberg has been living under the radar since 1989, when he came to Italy to serve as manager and technical director of the Godo baseball club for 12 years. He later became the pitching coach for San Marino as well as the Italian Junior and Senior National teams. Coach Holmberg was named Director and Field Coordinator of the MLB Italian Academy nearly a decade ago and has been instrumental in signing the best homegrown talent as a former international scout for the Chicago Cubs. Everyday he tirelessly trains the cream of the crop at an elite sports academy in the quaint beach community of Tirrenia near the Italian cultural iconic city of Pisa. Alessandro Maestri, the former Chicago Cub minor leaguer and recent Brisbane Bandit / 2012 Australian Baseball League (ABL) Fan Favorite Award recipient, was signed by Holmerg in 2006, when he became the first Italian-born pitcher ever signed by a Major League Baseball team.

In 2006 Chicago Cub European Scout Bill Holmberg signed Cesena's Alessandro Maestri,
the first Italian-born pitcher signed to a MLB contract. (Scott Powick / SMP Images / ABL)

Italian National team pitcher Alessandro Maestri showed the world that he could compete against baseball's elite in the World Baseball Classic.

Chicago Cub scout Holmberg knew early on that Alessandro was something special when he saw the young Italian play baseball for the first time. Holmberg said, “Alex can do whatever he wants to. He’s got the temperament and composure. He’s hit 95 mph, and his slider is at 86 or 87. He competes as hard as anyone out there.” Maestri still to this day works under the guidance and direction of Coach Holmberg. The Cesena, Italy
native made World Baseball Classic headlines in 2006 when his first offering to the Dominican Republic’s Moises Alou was rocketed out of the park for a home run. Despite the rocky start, he would not allow another earned run in his 4.2 combined innings in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics.

Alessandro Maestri as a Cub minor leaguer

Maestri demonstrated great promise in the Midwest and Florida State leagues as a two-time All-Star. As as starter and relief pitcher in the Chicago Cubs minor league system for five seasons, he racked up a 24-17 record with a 3.75 ERA and 19 saves. The right hand throwing pitcher put away hitters with his evasive slider–which was once voted as the best slider thrown by anyone in the entire franchise. Maestri made his preseason MLB debut against the Oakland A’s during Cubs Spring Training in Phoenix on April 1, 2009 when Cub manager Lou Pinella summoned him out of the bullpen. Maestri struck out Orlando Cabrera and then he sized up against slugger Jason Giambi–who was lucky to squeak out a single through the hole. MLB All-Star

Closer Alessandro Maestri was not afraid to show his winning Italian spirit by striking out Jayson Nix to beat Team U.S.A. for the first time in 21 years on November 9, 2007 during the 2007 Baseball World Cup.


Matt Holliday was caught looking at a third strike slider for the second out, and Eric Chavez went down swinging at his Italian slider in the dirt to end Maestri’s almost perfect outing. Nearly three years later, Alessandro is still as dominant as ever as witnessed by his numbers in the most recent 2011-12 ABL season. As the workhorse and ace of the Brisbane Bandit pitching staff, Maestri led his team in wins (4) and proved to be one of the best pitchers in the league. He finished third in the ABL in innings pitched (63.2) and in strikeouts (53), fourth in the ABL in WHIP (1.16) and sixth in the ABL in ERA (3.25). In Round Eight of the regular season, he earned the Pitcher of the Week award after pitching a stellar complete game two-hitter against the Canberra Cavalry. Based on his most recent form, Maestri is worthy of a second look by international scouts to make his long-awaited MLB debut. He will always be a competitor who lives on the edge to bail his team out of pressure situations.

MLB / FIBS Academy Director
Bill Holmberg is committed to producing Italy's finest athletes.


Of the frequent MLB-sponsored instructional clinics throughout Europe, none has had the impact of MLB / FIBS Academy host Coach Holmberg’s annual three and a half week summer invitational Major League Baseball International European Academy at the Olympic Training Center in Tirrenia. Designed to provide promising junior teenage players with both the environment and the instruction to reach their full potential, the European Academy brings together around 50 or more of the brightest young playing talent in Europe and Africa with the best in Major League coaching and instruction. The Academy seeks to provide a path for elite players from this region to improve their skills in preparation for the rigors of professional and international baseball. In addition to helping these bright young stars develop their skills, the Academy enables MLB Clubs to scout the best future talent. Holmberg explained, “It’s a pretty good place to see all the best players in Europe at one time. We’ve had between 18 and 20 scouts that have watched the games this past year.”
The Tirrenia baseball camp, which began in 2005, has much to do with MLB’s accelerated rate of signing the European elite to professional contracts based on the fact that the numbers have more than tripled from 2005 (2.33 average) to 2011 (9.0 average). So far 49 Academy graduates from ten countries (45 players from Europe and 4 players from Africa) have signed professional contracts with 19 different Major League Baseball franchises. Holmberg commented, “We’re not the Dominican Republic yet, but I think we might be sneaking up on Australia.”

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