When the Amarillo Sod Poodles opened their six-game series against the Frisco RoughRiders at Hodgetown on Tuesday night, Sod Poodles left-hander Blake Walston definitely felt the implications.
Walston, the No. 4 prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, was looking for his first win in Class AA against Frisco’s Jack Leiter, the No. 1 prospect in the Texas Rangers organization and No. 15 overall in professional baseball. He began thinking about it almost immediately.
“I went through three different shirts, I was sweating so much,” said Walston of his pregame mindset. “I was ready to go. All that prospect stuff doesn’t really mean anything to me. What happens on the field happens on the field so I don’t look too far into that.”
Walston carried an 0-2 record with a 10.13 ERA into his duel with Leiter, the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft and son of former major league veteran Al Leiter. But Walston made sure pedigree didn’t matter much.
In one of the top pitching performances at Hodgetown this season, Walston threw six shutout innings and scattered five hits as the Sod Poodles beat Leiter and the RoughRiders 7-4 to open the series.
Leiter, a right-hander, had a rougher night, as he went five innings and gave up all the runs by the Sod Poodles. All but one of those runs came via home runs, as Andy Yerzy hit a second-inning grand slam off Leiter to right field, and in the fourth inning, Drew Stankiewicz hit a two-run shot to approximately the same spot.
But that’s not the last the two pitching prospects will see of each other this series. Walston and Leiter are scheduled to face each other again at 6:05 p.m. Sunday at Hodgetown to conclude the series.
If nothing else, Walston will enter the rematch with the confidence he can win at Class AA after beating Leiter five days earlier.
“I just came in there with an underdog mentality,” Walston said. “My buddies made good plays behind me and me and my catcher (Nick Dalesandro) were pretty pinpoint. I’ve been playing with him three or four years now.”
Against a pitcher other than Leiter, it’s hard to consider Walston an underdog. He was the Diamondbacks first round draft pick in 2019 out of high school in Wilmington, N.C., hometown of several prominent people, most notably Michael Jordan.
Walston lost a year of development in 2020 due to COVID. He spent last season in Arizona’s Class A affiliates in Visalia and Hillsboro, and was called up to Amarillo from Hillsboro after making four starts.
Sod Poodles manager Shawn Roof thinks Walston was due for that first win.
“That was awesome for Blake,” Roof said. “He’s been working really, really hard. It seems like every outing he just gets better and better. He’s starting to trust himself and his stuff in the zone. His off-speed pitch when he was behind in counts was really big.”
Walston walked three but he allowed only one runner to get as far as third base.
While Leiter gave up two long balls, Walston avoided such mistakes. That’s a key to pitching in a hitter-friendly park such as Hodgetown.
“I’ve given up my fair share of homers here already and I’ve only pitched here twice,” Walston said. “I think it’s something you’ve got to put into your game plan to look at what the wind’s doing. You can pitch to the wind to get those easy outs. I saw the wind blowing like it was and decided to attack these guys up and away with fastballs.”
Leiter, on the other hand, couldn’t get away with much. When he left pitches over the plate, the Sod Poodles made him pay, as he also walked four.
“This is nothing against Jack Leiter, but our guys are all confident in their abilities,” Roof said. “They think they can come out and face anybody and have some success. They laid off some tough pitches and got him back in the zone and we took advantage of some of his walks.”
Now it’s Leiter’s turn to show whether or not he can adapt to the Sod Poodles and the conditions in Hodgetown. Will he show why he’s considered the future of the Rangers pitching staff, or will Walston continue his upward climb toward the Diamondbacks?
The latest chapter for both prospects will be written Sunday evening at Hodgetown.