Garth Brooks’ favorite Top 40 American in the ABL: #37 Chuck Lofgren of the Brisbane Bandits

37Prior to joining the Brisbane Bandits, the closest lefty pitcher Chuck Lofgren ever came to Australia was in 2010 when Aussie teammate Trent Oeltjen from the Nashville Sounds, Triple-A affiliate for the Milwaukee Brewers, introduced him to Vegemite. It was during this time period that the Wild Wild West California Country boy, who always wears boots on days that he pitches, got a chance to meet his idol Garth Brooks at the superstar’s Teammates for Kids Foundation Fundraiser at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Brooks later summoned Lofgren from his sixth row seat at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater to join the band onstage.

Chuck Lofgren singing with Garth Brooks and his band at the County Music Hall of Fame's Ford Theater in 2010.
Chuck Lofgren made his big league singing debut with Country legend Garth Brooks
and his band in Nashville after many years of playing in minor league cover bands.

American CowboyClick HERE to see his live performance. “Besides being drafted, that was the best thing I ever did,” said Lofgren, who plays a Seagull six-string guitar in a Country music cover band. “When you’re playing tiny mom and pop shops and dive bars, it’s a lot different than getting up there with him.” It’s been a long road for the former 2004 Cleveland Indians fourth round draft pick, who was heralded in the Baseball America 2006 Handbook “as one of the top lefthanders in the minors.” The Baseball America 2008 edition speculated that Lofgren “could make his big league debut later in the year.” However, his MLB debut eluded him after an extended stay at Triple-A Columbus did not warrant a call-up.

Chuck Lofgren in the 2008 Futures Game
Chuck Lofgren in the 2007 All-Star Futures Game
When the Cleveland Indians left Lofgren exposed in the Rule 5 draft, the Brewers claimed him in 2009. After a 2010 season-long Nashville audition, which included his unrehearsed performance with Garth Brooks at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Milwaukee set him free.
The South Bay native grew up watching his favorite player, Will “The Thrill” Clark, play at nearby Candlestick Park, and it was always a childhood dream to play for the San Francisco Giants. It was a family affair for Lofgren as his father was a 35-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department and worked on-field security near the dugout during Giants games. He signed as a minor league free agent with the Giants’ organization in 2010. Lofgren pitched in 2011 at Single-A San Jose, Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Fresno–posting a 5-3 record with a 4.31 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 6.8 K/9 rate, and 5.2 BB/9 rate. The Giants were looking for more from their local cowboy so Lofgren dug deep to his baseball roots when he was a successful two-way player and made the transition from lefty pitcher to first baseman and outfielder with his bat.
Brisbane Bandits pitcher Chuck Lofgren (Scott Powick / SMP Images)
Brisbane Bandits’ Chuck Lofgren in 2012 ABL action (Scott Powick / SMP Images)

As a teenager, he was named to the AFLAC All-American High School Baseball Classic in 2003 for his precise pitching and consistent hitting after three consecutive years as a two-way player for the USA Baseball team in Mexico (Gold Medal Winners), Venezuela and Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. When Lofgren was drafted by Cleveland in 2004, he was so good offensively that his contract allowed him to pitch and hit. Unfortunately, a home plate collision quickly ended his hitting career as the Tribe did not want their star pitching prospect getting hurt. Yet, after eight years of pitching in the minor leagues Lofgren was willing to lay it all on the line as a hitter for the San Francisco Giants when he re-signed as a minor league free agent for the 2012 season. If current free agent Rick Ankiel had successfully made the transition from pitcher to hitter in MLB, why couldn’t Lofgren do the same? The six-foot-four, 220 pounder was encouraged by the support of the Giants’ front office–especially Vice President Bobby Evans, who reportedly liked Lofgren’s swing and wanted to work with him.

Chuck Lofgren's baseball idol Will Clark
Childhood baseball idol Will Clark inspired Bay Area fan Chuck Lofgren to play for the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants had the lowest 2011 run total in the National League and as a result had little patience for Lofgren’s offensive transformation. On March 12th
San Francisco trimmed down its roster in preparation of 2012 Spring Training and had to part ways with
the once-heralded baseball prospect. In a classy response to his release, Chuck Lofgren (@chuckylof) tweeted: “Got released today by the Giants always thankful for the opportunity from the team that I grew up watching and loving. One door closes…” Although not a Major League Baseball club, American Association of Independent Professional Baseball’s Amarillo Sox happily opened the door for the multi-talented player. Since it is a rarity in baseball to find a starting pitcher who can serve as the team’s designated hitter on most pitching off days, Lofgren was a welcome addition to the 2012 Amarillo Sox roster. In his 200 at-bats, Lofgren compiled a .245 batting average with eight doubles, two triples, three homers, 32 walks and 25 RBI. Making 20 starts and working 119.2 innings, the veteran pitcher compiled a 4-6 record with a 4.36 ERA.

Chuck Lofgren's twitter photo
Chuck Lofgren’s (@chuckylof) twitter profile photo
2012-13 Brisbane Bandits pitcher Chuck Lofgren (4-3, 3.05 ERA) appears to have found his groove again playing in the Australian Baseball League. His most impressive
start on December 7th against the Perth Heat yielded 11 strikeouts
and was by far his best outing yet. Lofgren said, “Coming out you always want to face Perth. You hear that they’re the team to beat.” The 26-year-old American import went 6.2 innings and limited the reigning ABL champion Heat to just one earned run, seven hits and one walk. Lofgren may just have to sing Garth Brooks’ “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” again for MLB as a reminder that he still has a lot of game left in him despite being written-off prematurely.BrisbaneBandits

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Aussie Angel pitching prospect Aaron Sookee throws a heavenly slider destined for Anaheim

One of the most arm demanding pitches in baseball is the slider. The pitch is usually not taught to younger and underdeveloped pitchers unless their arms are physically ready to perfect the pitch. Unfortunately, the slider has caused more elbow injuries than all the other pitches combined. Having said that, when thrown correctly, the slider is one of the most devastating pitches out there. With a new found appreciation for this pitch and the pitchers who throw it, we turn our attention to an Angel pitching prospect that could possibly possess the best slider from his native Australia. Introducing 21-year-old Aaron Sookee

Six-foot-three LA Angel pitching prospect Aaron Sookee was as dominant as ever on the mound as a late-inning reliever for the Australian Baseball League’s Sydney Blue Sox.
The best pitchers in baseball use the slider to their advantage on the field, while their agents successfully utilize it in negotiations to ultimately determine their client’s fame and fortune. It is one of the four pitches that usually dictates a player’s ability to play at a professional level. The slider is very deceptive as the batter sees the ball as a fastball due to its speed and spin, but at the last moment the slider drops in front of home plate–unlike a curve ball which is detected by its spin or the pitching motion of the pitcher. A slider is thrown by grasping the ball with the index finger and middle finger not in the center of the ball, but off a bit to the right. Some of the most notable players to have made the slider one of the most difficult pitches to hit include: Hall of Famers Bob Lemon, Bob Gibson, Dennis Eckersley and Steve Carlton; legends Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, and Sparky Lyle; and pitchers Brad Lidge, Francisco Rodriguez, Zack Greinke, Johan Santana, Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Joba Chamberlain, Ervin Santana, Aroldis Chapman, Jonny Venters, Daniel Bard and Craig Kimbrel.
Aaron Sookee promises to be an asset to the LA Angels.

Signed by Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim scout Grant Weir in 2009, Aaron Sookee knew early on that it was a match made in heaven when the Southern California team made an offer he could not refuse. The teenager pitcher had dreamed of playing professional baseball for the LA Angels, who had at the time been a favorite among Australian baseball fans because of the famed Aussie pitcher and former Angel/Blue Sox Rich Thompson.

2010 Blue Sox Trent Oeltjen and Rich Thompson

Working as a late-inning reliever for the Sydney Blue Sox this past ABL season, Sookee made his presence felt by averaging more than one strike out per inning, which is just about the same ratio of two-year Angel minor league campaign (61 strike outs in 59 innings). Heading into his third Angels Spring Training camp, Aaron appeared more confident and more determined than ever to break into Major League Baseball. The following interview took place in mid-March at the Angels Spring Training facility in Tempe, AZ.

Aaron Sookee will take the momentum from his strong Sydney Blue Sox campaign into 2012.
Roberto: What inspired you to dream of playing Major League Baseball as a kid in Australia?
Aaron Sookee: I guess growing up we didn’t get a lot of the major league games so you had to look to the local teams in the old ABL. I remember watching Gary White and Dave Nilsson, both catchers but really great players. And then more recently Chris Oxspring and Brad Thomas and just seeing how they go about their business to hopefully make me into a major league pitcher one day.
Roberto: When did the bidding war between MLB teams begin for your seven-year professional baseball contract?
Aaron Sookee: In January 2009 is when it began and a few teams, I think five or six from memory, were competing. But as soon as the Angels made a bid, I knew that I wanted to play for the Angels.
Roberto: Now with Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson acquired during the offseason, do you think the Angels have the winning combination?
Aaron Sookee: Most definitely, you know what I mean. They should win close to 100 games this year with them two. It should be pretty exciting to watch.
Roberto: Has playing in the Angels farm system and in the Australian Baseball League during the offseason helped you develop into a confident pitcher?
Aaron Sookee: I have come a long way. I think that’s from playing everyday. There’s a different brand of baseball here because you do play everyday and you have to be ready to grind it out everyday. That’s the main difference between Australian baseball and American baseball.
Roberto: What are your short-term and long-term goals?
Aaron Sookee: I think the first plan or goal of mine is to make the long season team
in the Midwest League for the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Then step-by-step hopefully one day I get to play pro ball.
Roberto: While a member of the ABL’s Sydney Blue Sox, you were being mentored by former MLB pitching teammates Dae-Sung Koo (New York Mets), Chris Oxspring
(San Diego Padres) and Brad Thomas (Detroit Tigers). Was that inspirational to you?
Aaron Sookee: It definitely was…just watching how those guys go about their business.
It was an honour playing alongside them. I learned a lot from all three of them, even though that Koo didn’t speak much English. He can translate through baseball language I guess and then Thom-O and Ox really helped me grow this offseason.Roberto: Why did you choose to become a pitcher instead of another position?
Aaron Sookee: Because I couldn’t hit. That’s basically it…couldn’t hit! (Laughter)
Roberto: There’s hope thanks to the designated hitter.
Aaron Sookee: Yeah right, it came in for a reason. (Laughter)
Roberto: Your pitching arsenal has improved dramatically with the addition of a wicked
slider, which has successfully ended a lot of innings for you. When did you add that pitch
to your repertoire?
Aaron Sookee: (Laughter) It’s come a long way during the offseason…maybe the last calendar year. I’ve been working really hard on it. I just can’t wait to use it this season.
Roberto: With that pitch, are you the Australian version of the Italian slider expert Alessandro Maestri of the Brisbane Bandits?
Aaron Sookee: Yeah, I guess so (laughter). Maestri has carved Sydney a few times…
He’s a true professional in every aspect of the word. Roberto: Does it feel good when fans ask for your autograph?
Aaron Sookee: It’s very humbling to see that fans appreciate what you do and all the
hard work that you put in because it translates to performance on the field. Yeah, it’s good.
Roberto: Any advice for the youth back home that are considering playing baseball?
Aaron Sookee: Just stick with it. Every time you can throw a ball, throw it and don’t hold back. Don’t leave any stone left unturned and just go after it. Don’t be afraid to play.
That’s the main thing I think.
Roberto: Thanks for taking time out to talk today.
Aaron Sookee: Thank you. It’s been a honour. Thanks for having me.

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.”

MLB digs ‘Down Under’ and finds nine Aussie stars

Major League Baseball ventures into Australia to find new talent and fans.

Australia has produced over 330 players who have signed professional contracts with Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs and boasts more MLB contracted players than talent pools from China and its province in Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Cuba. Australia set a country-best record earlier last year with nine Aussie players being called up to the major leagues. Now in 2012, there are now nearly 60 Australian players competing in the major and minor league circuits. In total to date, there have been 35 Australian players who have successfully achieved MLB status.

A's ace Grant Balfour plays to win games and nothing gets in the way of showing it.

Leading the charge of the thunder ‘Down Under’ in Major League Baseball is Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics. Balfour is just one of two Australian professional players to compete in a World Series as a late-inning relief pitcher for the 2008 American League Champ Tampa Bay Rays. Acquired by the Rays in July 2007 from the Milwaukee Brewers in a trade sending pitcher Seth McClung to Miller Field, Grant Balfour did not make Tampa Bay’s opening 2008 roster. However, after turning heads at Triple-A Durham and closer Troy Percival being placed on the disabled list early into the season, the Rays sent Ben Zobrist to Durham in exchange for Balfour. Tampa Bay’s decision paid off immediately as the Aussie pitcher was worth his weight in gold.

Evan Longoria holds back Grant Balfour from a potential clash.
Assuming the role of Rays closer for the ailing Troy Percival until mid-July, Balfour ended his regular season campaign with a stellar
6-2 record and a 1.54 ERA. In perhaps the most memorable appearance of his Tampa Bay career, Balfour struck out future Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. for the final out of game four of the 2008 American League division series against the Chicago White Sox and led the Rays to its first playoff series win ever. After a three-year stint in Tampa Bay, Balfour signed a two-year contract worth 8.1 million dollars with the Oakland Athletics in January 2011. In
his 62 innings of relief for the A’s during 2011, Grant struck out 59 hitters and racked up five wins for the third-place Athletics. He also repeated his personal best 14 2/3 inning scoreless streak in 2011.

Hideki Matsui congratulates A's closer Grant Balfour after yet another save.

The 34-year-old Balfour, who made his MLB debut back in
2001 for the Minnesota Twins, is the Australian patriarch for future Aussie baseball prospects. Although more than a decade has passed since then, he appears to have turned a new leaf and be at the prime of his career. Perhaps his greatest Aussie highlight came on September 15, 2010–when he fanned the Yankees’ Austin Kearns and passed former MLB star Graeme Lloyd on the career strikeout list for Australian-born pitchers. Lloyd, however, can still lay claim to being half of MLB’s first
all-Australian battery with catcher Dave Nilsson in 1994.

Pitcher Liam Hendriks of the Minnesota Twins
Up-and-coming 23-year-old pitcher Liam Hendriks of the Minnesota Twins made history in his MLB debut last year on September 6th–when he, teammate Luke Hughes and White Sox Shane Lindsay became the first three Australians to play in the same Major League Baseball game. Leading the Major Leagues since 2004 for lowest amount of walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP), Chicago’s Jake Peavy was hardly the best candidate
to go head-to-head against for his first MLB victory. With no run support from his Twins offense, the Perth-born Hendriks fought hard by pitching seven strong innings but in the end lost his first decision 3-0. Fox Sports North analyst and Baseball Hall of Famer
Bert Blyleven praised Hendriks on his first outing. He said, “From what I saw today, he deserves a B-plus. I thought he pitched very well, he did a good job.
Liam Hendriks in his 2011 MLB debut.
Hendriks controlled both sides of the plate, and he changed speeds well. He got through it with flying colors. Run support would be nice but you can’t always have that, but I thought he pitched a very, very good ballgame.” The elusive first win never manifested in four appearances this past season; however, Hendriks kept hitters guessing by striking out 16 in a combined 23 innings of work. Liam Hendriks was signed by the Twins as a non-drafted free agent out of Australia’s Sacred Heart College in 2007. He made his professional debut as an 18-year-old that summer with the Single-A Rookie Gulf Coast League Twins. In his eleven starts in Florida, Hendriks went 4-2 with a 2.05 ERA. In 2008 he pitched for the Australian national team in the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Prior to the start of the 2009 season, Hendriks returned on the hill for his country in the World Baseball Classic.
Perth Heat's Liam Hendriks in 2007

Coming off a layoff, he then resumed play in the minor leagues, where he posted a 5-5 record with a 3.55 ERA in 14 starts. Hendriks was selected for the 2010 All-Star Futures Game, but was forced to miss the contest due to appendicitis. In 2011 he began the season at Double-A New Britain and went 8-2 with an impressive 2.70 ERA in 15 starts. Hendriks was promoted on July 19th to Triple-A Rochester, where he tallied a 4-4 record with 4.56 in nine starts. History would repeat itself the Aussie right-hander was once again selected to the World Team roster in the 2011 All-Star Futures Game. As if being chosen an All-Star for the second consecutive year was not enough, the six-foot-three, 210-pound Liam Hendriks was recently named the 2011 Jim Rantz Award winner as the Twins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after ranking second among all Twins Minor Leaguers in wins (12) and strikeouts (111). Hendriks has a promising future ahead in MLB.

Twin Luke Hughes in the 2009 World Baseball Classic

Facing Detroit Tigers’ Max Scherzer on the mound in his first major league at bat in April 2010, Luke Hughes slugged a home run out of the park. Perhaps an early indication of what was to follow in 2011 Twins Spring Training, Hughes showed a ton of promise with his bat and defensive position versatility.
By leading the Twins with six home runs, 15 RBI, a .567 slugging percentage and 37 total bases in the preseason, there was no way manager Ron Gardenhire was going to send him back down to the minors again. Luke played in 96 games as a utility infielder in his first full major league season in 2011.

Perth-born Luke Hughes of the Minnesota Twins
For an anemic Twins offense which ranked 25th of the 30 professional baseball teams, Hughes power was a welcome addition to Minnesota as he slammed seven home runs and racked up 30 RBI. The late-blooming 27-year-old Luke Hughes will certainly improve with more playing time as he becomes more familiar with some of MLB’s best pitchers. During the offseason, he played in 19 games for his hometown Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League (ABL) and hit .344 with four home runs and 13 RBI.
The explosive former Chicago White Sox pitcher Shane Lindsay was recently signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Going into 2011 Chicago White Sox Spring Training in Arizona, relief pitcher Shane Lindsay had a career minor league record of 19-14 with a 3.65 ERA in the NY Yankees, Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians organizations. Although he did not make the 25-man opening day roster, manager Ozzie Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper were very much impressed with the 27-year-old career minor leaguer. So much in fact that when the roster expanded in September–it was graduation time to Major League Baseball for Lindsay. After posting a 1.98 ERA and punching out 78 in 63 innings of relief work at the Triple-A level, Shane was put to the test in his MLB pitching debut on September 2nd against the 2011 American League Central Division Champion Detroit Tigers. In his inning pitched as a reliever at Comerica Park, Lindsay allowed no hits with a strike out and a walk. The six-foot-one, two hundred five-pounder made three other relief appearances before the end of the season.
Melbourne Ace pitcher Shane Lindsay in ABL action

Lindsay elected free agency in October 2011, and agent Paul Kinzer reported in November that his client had signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He will need to impress coaches at Dodgers Spring Training when pitchers and catchers report at the end of month at Arizona’s Camelback Ranch to make the 2012 Dodgers Opening Day roster. Most predict Shane Lindsay will begin as a member of the Dodger Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque Isotopes bullpen in anticipation of the MLB call up.
Atlanta Braves sidearm reliever Peter Moylan is considered one of MLB's best groundball specialists and the chief bullpen stopper in pressure situations.

Former Australia World Baseball Classic team member and current Atlanta Braves 33-year-old reliever Peter Moylan underwent right shoulder surgery during the offseason to repair a torn right labrum and rotator cuff. The groundball specialist was encouraged by surgeon Dr. James Andrews’ projection that he would likely only need six months of rehab. Moyan said, “It is what it is and couldn’t have been avoided. It’s rough, but it just means my offseason will be spent rehabbing instead of relaxing. It’s not going to change anything. I’m still going to be ready to go by the end of spring.” Moylan has long been plagued by a series of injuries and surgeries. The Aussie pitcher missed most of the 2011 season after another surgery for a bulging disk in his back.

Hitters cringe when facing the oddity Peter Moylan.

With 287 game appearances under his belt in his on-and-off again six seasons in MLB, Moylan has been a workhorse out of the bullpen when not on the disabled list. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, the hard-throwing right-hander with his signature side-armed ‘down under’ delivery returned in fine form in 2009 and set a Braves franchise record 87 relief appearances. 2010 was equally as busy as his workload included 85 appearances in relief.

Even for a reliever who has set the bar high with a respectable 2.60 ERA and 205 strike outs in his illustrious MLB career, there is a heightened sense of optimism that if Moylan returns healthy in 2012 that his personal best year for the Braves has yet to come. An Atlanta fan favorite out of the bullpen, Peter is also well-liked on Twitter–unless you are in the band Nickelback. Considered less than entertaining live, they were nearly booed offstage in Detroit on Thanksgiving. @PeterMoylan tweeted to Nickelback lead singer Chad Kroeger that he should attend a Foo Fighters concert to learn how to put on a good show. “Foos are killer for sure,” tweeted Kroeger. “We’re doing just fine too thanks. ? for you Pete, is watching [Braves closer Craig] Kimbrel better from the bench or on TV?.” Better cancel Atlanta boys!!! Worth following anywhere, Peter Moylan is top-notch entertainment.

Trent Oeltjen of the Los Angeles Dodgers hopes to play everyday next to Matt Kemp.

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Trent Oeltjen could have easily followed his childhood friends playing rugby in Sydney. Instead, his American father made sure that Trent played T-Ball at an early age and developed a love for his dad’s country’s favorite pastime. After catching the eyes of MLB scouts as a standout player for Australia in the World Junior Baseball Championship, Oeltjen signed a professional baseball contract with the Minnesota Twins organization at the ripe young age of 17. He was chosen to play for the Australian national team at the Athens Olympics in 2004. As a member of Australia’s 2005 Baseball World Cup and 2006 World Baseball Classic teams, Oeltjen once again represented his homeland. Oeltjen proclaimed, “Any time you get to represent your country on the world’s stage, it’s a dream come true for any Australian kid.”

Trent Oeltjen and Rich Thompson strengthened their craft early on 'Down Under' and while playing in the Australian Baseball League for their hometown Sydney Blue Sox.

The accolades continued as he was selected to the 2006 MLB All-Star Futures Game and the 2007 Baseball World Cup, where he led the international competition in three major categories. Batting an unstoppable .523, stealing seven bases and scoring nine runs, Oeltjen became the first Australian in the event tournament’s 37 years to make the All-Star team and win its Batting Award. “The World Cup really helped me turn around my career,” Oeltjen exclaimed. “It helped me get the confidence to know that I could play against some of the best players in the world. Since then I’ve found that my career has really turned around.” He was summoned once again for more Aussie baseball ambassadorship duty in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where another strong offensive 6-for-12 batting frenzy ensued. Not surprisingly, his success for Australia coincided with another baseball dream realized. The aspiring and talented athlete spent nine years in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut for the 2009 Arizona Diamondbacks, thereby becoming Australia’s 27th member of the elite Major League Baseball fraternity.

Gene Simmons of KISS, Shannon Tweed and their two children meet Trent Oeltjen at Dodger Stadium.

On August 6, 2009, Oeltjen made the best of his MLB debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates by blasting his first major league home run over the right field wall off relief pitcher Jesse Chavez in the top of the 8th inning to tie the score in a game the D-Backs would win in extra innings. Leaving a lasting impression on baseball fans and international supporters who always believed in his athleticism, Oeltjen finished the game 2-for-6 with one RBI and two stolen bases.

Deeply inspired by Hollywood, Trent Oeltjen does his own stunts and lives for dramatic storybook endings.

After playing in 24 Diamondbacks games before the end of the 2009 season, Trent Oeltjen signed with the Dodgers in July 2010. He was assigned to Triple-A Albuquerque and later called up to the majors briefly at the end of the 2010 season. In June 2011, the left hand-hitting slugger earned his way back up to the major league level for good with a .339 batting average–including a sizzling .440 in May–racking up eight homers and 34 RBI in 56 Triple-A games.

During the remainder of the 2011 season, Oeltjen played in 61 Dodgers games in the absence of Manny Ramirez. Despite a major letdown in Mannywood, it was all blue skies for the Aussie outfielder. He took full advantage of the opportunity to become an everyday player. However, 2012 will prove to be a critical season for the 29-year-old as he strives for a slot in the Dodgers Opening Day line-up.

Rich Thompson of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is one of the most underrated MLB pitchers and is critical to the success of the Halos.

A Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program (MLBAAP) success story playing for two of Australia’s
and America’s finest organizations in the Sydney
Blue Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 
Rich Thompson recently returned from his third trip to Taiwan after pitching for the Major League Baseball
All-Stars in the 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series. Having played for the Australian national team during his junior and senior international career, Thompson was well aware of the young Chinese Taipei team’s talent and ability to compete. This time he made history as the 27-year-old Hornsby-native not only was the first of the 31 Australians to play Major League Baseball to be selected for a traveling All-Star Series team but also the first MLB pitcher to win two games in the five-game exhibition series. Enjoying a solid 2011 campaign for Halos manager Mike Scioscia, Thompson made 44 appearances and kept batters at bay with a 3.00 ERA. Best known for being a pressure situation reliever with men on base, Thompson comes through when called upon to deliver key outs in times of critical crises.

LA Angel Manager Mike Scioscia pulls reliable reliever Rich Thompson for a strategic lefty-lefty match up.
In 54 innings of work, the rally stopper struck out 56 hitters and solidified his position in the Angels bullpen. Seven years younger than senior mentor Grant Balfour, Thompson is in a better position in becoming the bright new face for Australian baseball players in the major leagues. When asked by OzMLBplayers blog what was the best advice he could give up-and-coming Australian baseball prospects, Thompson paused, reflected and thought back to some words of wisdom offered from a fellow Aussie.
Pitcher Rich Thompson in 2007 All-Star Futures Game
“When I was 13, I attended a two-day camp with Mark Shipley,” said Thompson. “Shipley’s advice was: Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Always be clean-shaven. And church on Sundays. That always stuck with me. Since I can’t be bothered shaving and we play games on Sundays, I guess two out of four ain’t bad.” Thompson believes an improved attitude and a cutter that strengthened his arsenal of pitches led to the best season of his career. “I really felt like it was an attitude change.
Having that extra pitch (cutter) maybe gave me some more confidence, and I had more opportunities to get guys out.”
San Diego Padres lefty Josh Spence struck out the first batter he faced--Atlanta Braves' highly-prized 22-year-old Jason Hayward--in his MLB pitching debut at PETCO Park on June 24, 2011.

San Diego Padres believe in pitching ace Josh Spence and their future with him.

Although he hails from Geelong, Australia, San Diego Padres southpaw Josh Spence began his collegiate pitching campaign at Central Arizona Community College, where in two seasons he stifled and rung up batters at an alarming rate (327 strike outs) to the tune of a whopping 1.40 ERA. Arizona State University (ASU) recruited Spence into their 2009 starting rotation, and the Sun Devils enjoyed a ride to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska as a result. Spence has proven that he can compete under pressure when it counts and deliver outstanding pitching performances when they mean the most.

Josh Spence celebrating before going to the 2009 College World Series with Arizona State University.
Teammates Mike Leake–named 2009 National Player of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) and current Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher–and Jason Kipnis–named a 2009 1st Team All-American by ABCA and current Cleveland Indians second baseman–witnessed first-hand the pitching magic of Josh Spence–named a 2009 2nd Team All-West Regions Honoree–as he compiled a 10-1 record with a 2.37 ERA during his junior year. It will make for an interesting 2012 ASU reunion this year between July 30 and August 2 at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark when Leake and Kipnis face Spence for the first time in opposing uniforms.
Pitcher Josh Spence can be a hitter's worst nightmare on the hill when on target and in the zone.

The slender six-foot-one lefty Spence was drafted in
the third round by the Angels in June 2009, but he opted not to sign so that he could return to Arizona State for his senior year. However, he missed the
entire 2010 college season with a vague elbow injury. Regardless, the Padres still selected him in the ninth round of the 2010 draft, and he proved healthy enough to pitch 24 innings between rookie ball and the Midwest League. Prior to being called up to MLB in June 2011, Spence surrendered only 48 hits and struck out 84 with a remarkable 2.14 ERA in 71 innings pitched in the minor leagues. The 24-year-old continued his dominant pitching as a San Diego Padres reliever by striking out 31 hitters in 29 innings and posting a 2.73 ERA. Under the watchful eye of former Angels pitching coach and current manager Bud Black, Josh Spence possesses the tools to become not only a promising MLB starting pitcher but also a potential future Cy Young candidate. Padres’ faithful look for Josh Spence to have a breakout season in 2012.

Free agent pitcher Brad Thomas waits patiently for another chance to play MLB after a baseball twist of fate changed the course of his life by avoiding a close call with tragedy when 9/11 travel plans cancelled due to postseason play.

Postseason baseball–courtesy of former Minnesota Twins Double-A affiliate New Britain Rock Cats teammate Michael Cuddyer’s game-winning home run–saved the life of pitcher Brad Thomas. Changing his travel plans and ultimately his fate, Thomas would not leave on this particular date and flight to his native Australia because advancing to the Eastern League’s finals pushed back that trip for him. With airline tickets in hand for he and his wife, Kylie, on American Airlines Flight 11–which took off from Boston on September 11th destined for Los Angeles but instead crashed into the World Trade Center, Brad Thomas lived to tell his story. He commented, “Michael pretty much saved our lives single-handedly by knocking in the winning runs in the last of the playoff games that took us to the next round.” Cuddyer was Thomas’ first roommate in professional baseball in 1997. They played parts of the following seven seasons together, making their way up through the Twins minor league system. When Brad Thomas began pitching for the Detroit Tigers in the 2010, their friendship took a slight turn. Friend or foe–when pitching to an opponent, even a lifesaver–it’s a different ball game. In four career at bats facing the left-handed reliever, Cuddyer is hitless with a walk. Off the diamond, however, they are life-long bros.

Sydney Blue Sox Brad Thomas was impressive in the 2012 ABL postseason by allowing only one earned run in 11 innings of starting pitching against the feisty Adelaide Bite and the defending champion Perth Heat. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Schembri/SMP Images/ABL)

While Cuddyer continues to thrive in Minnesota, the future is unknown for the 34-year-old Thomas. With a 6-6 career record and a 5.80 ERA in Major League Baseball, it’s probable that this Aussie will be looking for another minor league deal or a return to Japan or Korea for another new lease on life in the world of baseball. He recently had a great abbreviated season in the Australian Baseball League with the Sydney Blue Sox. The Sydney native made four starts and five total appearances amounting to 22.1 innings pitched. With a 2.42 ERA and a 1-1 record in the 2011-12 ABL season, Brad Thomas demonstrated that he is once again MLB ready.

With a landmark partnership between the Australian Baseball Federation, Major League Baseball and the Australian Sports Commission, the sky is the limit for the recently revamped Australian Baseball League. In an effort to propel baseball’s profile on the Australian sports landscape and foster participation in the game, the ABL seeks to showcase the wealth of talented Australian baseball players on their own home turf and to teach what their fellow Aussie predecessors from decades past have mastered in elevating the sport on the international level. Teams boast elite national players from across Australia along with personnel from Major League Baseball feeder clubs, the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan, the Korean Baseball Organization and the Chinese Professional Baseball League. The ABL pioneers the pathway of development for many emerging Australian baseball prospects as well as offers a vibrant alternative off-season league for games hosted in the northern hemisphere. Currently in its second season as Australia’s premier professional baseball competition with the 2012 ABL Championship Series between defending champ Perth Heat and challenger Melbourne Aces this weekend, be sure to tune in and watch the excitement of what is truly the ABL’s answer to the MLB World Series. For further information on the Australian Baseball League, visit their official ABL website.

Food for thought: Pitcher Alex Maestri–Italy’s first export to MLB imported by ABL’s Brisbane Bandits

When asked about preparations for his Italian squad in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, the best hitting catcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) history and Team Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza replied, “We’ll have the best food.” All joking aside, Pizza commented: “You’ve got talent in Italy, think of Alex Maestri and Alex Liddi… To help talented kids you need to get them to play more games. Look at me, I didn’t really improve until I was given the possibility to play every day.”

Alessandro Maestri was the first Italian-born pitcher signed by Major League Baseball in 2006.

The 26-year-old Alex Maestri made MLB history as the first Italian born pitcher to be signed by a major league club–the Chicago Cubs–in 2006. Three years later another historical milestone in baseball would take place when the Italian prospect would finally compete on the Major League level. Thinking that it was yet another day on the bench or perhaps a really good April Fools prank, April 1, 2009 would go down as a very Big League day for Alessandro Maestri. Upon reporting to a Cubs Spring Training game in Phoenix against the Oakland Athletics, Maestri was informed that he would making his first preseason Major League pitching debut, which many would consider to have been “textbook”
and as good as it could ever be.

The setting was perfect under a pleasant 71 degree warm Arizona sun for Maestri to take over for Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano and Luis Vizcaino in the fifth inning. Little did Maestri know that he would come face-to-face with some of Major League Baseball’s most feared hitters. His first strike out victim was Orlando Cabrera, who was caught looking at a fastball on the outside corner. Next up with slugger Jason Giambi, who managed to squeak out a single through the hole. Following was Matt Holliday, nicknamed “Big Daddy” for his towering six-foot-four stature and his muscular physique. Maestri dug down deep and mesmerized the intimidating Major League All-Star with a called third strike slider for out number two. The selective Eric Chavez worked the count full before swinging and faltering to Maestri’s wicked slider in the dirt for his third strikeout. Upon returning to the dugout, legendary Cubs skipper Lou Pinella congratulated the young Italian hurler.

As as starter and relief pitcher in the Chicago Cubs minor league system for five seasons, Maestri racked up a 24-17 record with a 3.75 ERA and 19 saves. A two-time minor league All-Star, 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 organization. Representing his native Italy in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic (WBC), Maestri dominated hitters. In the 2009 WBC, Maestri held opponents scoreless in his two plus innings–during which he got Miguel Cabrera to ground out on a fielder’s choice and Magglio Ordonez to strike out.

Since joining the Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League (ABL) this month, Maestri has been brilliant. In his first two ABL victories against the Canberra Calvary and the Sydney Blue Sox, he threw over 10 innings of scoreless ball and struck out 11. Add to that total another 8 K’s he put down on his most recent indecision versus the Melbourne Aces on November 18th, and Maestri has tallied 19 strike outs in just over 17 innings pitched. With the ABL’s fifth lowest ERA (1.56), the five-foot-eleven Italian has dished out almost nothing but zeros across the box scores. Look for Maestri to battle teammate Yohei Yanagawa–Japan’s 2011 Nippon Professional Baseball League Champion Fukuoka Southbank Hawks reliever, who has struck out 20 as a Bandits starter in over 16 innings–and Canberra Cavalry’s Michael McGuire–a six-foot-seven, 240 pound 2008 First-Year Player Draftee by the Cleveland Indians from the University of Delaware and currently a Philadelphia Phillies minor league starting pitcher, who now leads the ABL with 21 strike outs in 13 plus innings of work–to battle it out until the end for the title of 2011-12 ABL Strike Out King.

When the ABL season concludes in late January, Alex Maestri is scheduled to head to O’Flallon, Missouri to pitch for the 2010 Frontier League Champion River City Rascals after being acquired in a trade last month with the Lincoln Saltdogs–2009 American Association of Independent Professional Baseball Champions. Heralded as the premier Italian born baseball champion of Major League Baseball, Maestri has fast become a favorite in the Australian Baseball League’s appetite for imports as a leader of the Brisbane Bandits.