BY MATT LaWELL
LAKE ELSINORE, California | During his last afternoon as an Inland Empire 66er, Donn Roach walked into his manager’s office, summoned from the visiting clubhouse about an hour after the team arrived at the Epicenter in Rancho Cucamonga. He had pitched well enough during his first month in the High-A California League — had dominated batters, in fact — that he figured he might have received a promotion to the Arkansas Travelers and the Double-A Texas League.
He picked up the phone, listened to the voice of Los Angeles Angels assistant general manager Scott Servais and learned that, yes, he was headed to a new team.
The Lake Elsinore Storm.
He had been traded.
“You have a lot of pitchers who will use the Cal League as an excuse, and there’s some truth to that, there are some parks where the ball flies out. That doesn’t take away from the fact you have to make your pitches. It makes you a better pitcher if you have success in a league like this.” — Lake Elsinore catcher Eddy Rodriguez
“It catches you off guard unless you’re a big leaguer and there are rumors out there,” Roach says. “But it’s a good thing. Somebody wants you.”
The reason Roach pitches for the Storm now rather than 66ers is that the Los Angeles Angels needed some help in their Major League bullpen. They landed a deal with the San Diego Padres — young Major League righty Ernesto Frieri for infielder Alexi Amarista and Roach. That was May 3. Frieri went straight to the Los Angeles bullpen and Amarista — the 2009 Midwest League batting champion and a Major Leaguer for part of last season — went to the Triple-A Tucson Padres.
Roach just went to a different dugout in Southern California.
“I could drive my car out here, so all my stuff fit,” Roach says. “About as simple as can be.”
What was not simple was how Roach went from the fringe to dominance in less than two seasons. The Angels selected him fresh out of the Junior College of Southern Nevada — the same team that featured a 17-year-old Bryce Harper in full eye black — in the supplemental portion of the third round of the 2010 draft. He started the season with the Orem Owlz of the Rookie Pioneer League and dropped a 6.04 ERA in 16 appearances. All his other statistics forecast some future success — nearly 10 strikeouts and just one homer every nine innings, almost four strikeouts for every walk — but he needed an overhaul.
Angels coaches cleaned up his delivery and the results showed immediately last season. A lower ERA, even fewer walks, even greater control. After a season in the bullpen, Roach was ready to return to the rotation.
On April 6, the day after opening day, Roach stepped on the mound at Rancho Cucamonga and shut out the Quakes over seven innings. Five days later, at Lake Elsinore, he allowed the Storm to score only one run over six innings. Five days after that, during his first home start, he gave up three runs over seven innings to the Modesto Nuts. And on and on and on. Roach has started nine games this season, pitching fewer than six innings only twice, allowing more than three earned runs just once. In the California League, those figures are staggering.
“You have a lot of pitchers who will use the Cal League as an excuse, and there’s some truth to that, there are some parks where the ball flies out,” says Lake Elsinore catcher Eddy Rodriguez, who batted 2-for-5 against Roach with a pair of singles and three strikeouts, and has caught two of his three starts for the Storm. “That doesn’t take away from the fact you have to make your pitches. It makes you a better pitcher if you have success in a league like this.”
More than the perfect 7-0 record, more than the 1.69 ERA and the 0.90 WHIP and the .198 batting average against, even more than 47 strikeouts, seven walks and one — ONE — home run allowed over 58 2-3 innings, is this statistic, which is a result of that offseason tinkering and tells more about Roach than any other number: Of the 176 outs he has recorded this season, 114 have come by way of the ground ball. In a league famous for homers and high scores, keeping the ball on the ground is the best way to pitch.
Appropriate, too, for a pitcher who plays in a league where flights are nonexistent and, on the afternoon he was traded, climbed in his black Dodger Charger and hit the road.
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Time for minor league trivia. On May 18, 2007, the Storm established a California League record for run differential in a single game that will (likely) never be topped after they slugged their way to a 30-0 win over what team? (Keep reading for the answer, or just click over to our map page. The answer is there, too.)
Down in Lake Elsinore for his third rehab start in the minors, Padres right-hander Tim Stauffer pitched seven shutout innings for the Storm, retiring 19 of the last 20 batters he faced. The gem faded, though, after righties Dennis O’Grady, Greg Gonzalez and Kevin Quackenbush combined to give up six runs — only two earned — during the eighth and ninth innings. Second baseman Cory Spangenberg batted 2-for-4 with a three-run double in the fifth inning and centerfielder Rico Noel batted 3-for-5, but neither effort was enough as the Storm lost for the sixth time in seven games.
Every time the Storm scores — and, historically, the team has scored plenty (did you read the trivia question?) — a pink rabbit named Jackpot emerges from a door next to the manual scoreboard in right field and dances. On the field. During the game. Sort of ridiculous, but it ties in perfectly with the team’s commitment to promotions and entertainment.
Want the answer? The unfortunate victims of that 30-run beating were the Lancaster JetHawks. The Storm scored four runs in the first inning of that historic game, six in the second, six more in the third, five in the fourth, just one in the sixth, two in the eighth and, for good measure, six in the ninth. The JetHawks won the next night, 14-12, before the Storm bounced back for a more modest 21-6 win in the series finale.
And in random statistical news, the game started three minutes later than scheduled, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter grounded out to second and Autumn Boden sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1 minute and 28.8 seconds. We skipped hot dogs (because after three weeks without any, our digestive systems would have hated franks two straight days) and ate a half dozen chicken tenders and way too many fries. Seriously, if you order a platter at Lake Elsinore, you’ll spend two or three innings eating the fries. Just silly. Delicious, though.
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