Names and faces aren’t expected to remain the same for all or even most of the season in Class AA baseball, and the Amarillo Sod Poodles have certainly personified that in returning home this week after a two-week road trip.
But in the two weeks since the Sod Poodles last played at Hodgetown, there have been some familiar faces who haven’t been around and some unfamiliar faces who are regulars, both in greater numbers than normal.
Never was that more apparent than on who the Soddies had on the mound on Thursday and Friday against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals at Hodgetown. Not only were pitchers Brent Teller, Kyle Mora and Dillon Larsen not in Amarillo at the beginning of the season, they weren’t even playing affiliated baseball.
All three were in independent league baseball when the season started, but in less than three months, they were two steps away from the major leagues after getting signed by the Sod Poodles parent club Arizona Diamondbacks. Teller started Friday night and pitched the first five innings, doing enough to earn a victory in a typical 11-10 slugfest, his first Double-A victory.
“It’s definitely a little surreal,” Teller said. “It still hasn’t hit me yet. It was definitely not how I expected everything to play out. I’m blessed for the opportunity that came.”
The presence of Teller, Mora and Larsen in Amarillo was necessitated by health concerns. There have been as many as five Sod Poodles pitchers who were placed on the injured list.
That meant Teller and Mora were making their first starts in Class AA in Hodgetown on back-to-back nights. If using pitchers from indie ball could be seen as rolling the dice, then manager Shawn Roof came up with sevens.
Mora threw only three innings Thursday night, giving up three runs with two home runs, but Larsen came on in relief and threw three scoreless innings. That was enough to keep the Naturals at bay so the Soddies could rally from a four-run deficit and win 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth.
“It’s part of baseball,” Roof said. “Things happen every day and rosters change. Things go along like that, and it happened a lot last year and it kind of prepared us for this. The mentality is next man up and whoever we’ve got we’re going to go with them.”
Normally, injuries and promotions mean that somebody is getting called up from the Class A affiliate in Hillsboro, Ore, or maybe the one in Visalia, Calif. That happened with Teller and Larsen, who both were with Hillsboro (Teller almost for literally a cup of coffee) before coming to Amarillo, but their path to the Diamondbacks organization weren’t traditional.
Teller pitched for the Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers of the Atlantic League to start the year. Larsen, a left-hander, was pitching for an indie league team in Ohio.
As evidence of how “fluid” personnel situations can be, Mora made two relief appearances during the Soddies road trip before starting against the Naturals, and Larsen, a starter before being signed by the Diamondbacks, has moved to the bullpen.
“I’ve been trying to take it one day at a time,” Larsen said. “I think my family’s more stressed out than I am. (Hillsboro manager Vince Harrison) called me in his office and said I was going up and the next day I was in Amarillo. It’s been pretty crazy.”
Larsen relieved Mora, who had the roughest outing of the three indie ball callups. Mora only gave up two hits, but they were solo homers and he struggled with his control, walking four although he also struck out four.
Like Teller and Larsen, Mora started the year in indie ball, pitching for the Milwaukee Milkmen of the American Association. Unlike Teller and Larsen, Mora didn’t go to Hillsboro after the Diamondbacks signed him, as he spent time at the organization’s facility in Arizona before getting called up to the Soddies during their road trip.
“It’s been a pretty quick turnaround but it’s been a lot of fun,” Mora said. “It’s definitely been more of a whirlwind than a surprise. Independent ball is better than a lot of people give it credit for. It’s definitely an older league so going there fresh out of college was definitely a good experience and helped me a lot.”
All three pitchers threw at the four-year college level, as Mora went to UCLA, Larsen pitched at Central Washington and Teller competed at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. That also could have helped in terms of practical game experience.
As it turns out, the Sod Poodles needed every bit of their contributions in winning a pair of one-run games. They combined to throw 11 of the team’s 18 innings for a depleted pitching staff.
“They’ve been huge,” Roof said. “We needed innings more than anything and getting outs as soon as possible. Mora going three and Larsen came in and gave us three more innings and did a great job. Teller going five allowed us the length to use our bullpen.”
It wasn’t a tidy outing for Teller, who started the game by giving up a double, a walk and a three-run homer to Tyler Gentry. He also gave up a solo homer to Nick Loftin and trailed 5-2 heading into the bottom of the fifth.
But the Soddies rallied for five runs in the fifth, capped by a three-run home run by Drew Stankeiwicz which gave them the lead for good at 7-5. That gave Teller the win, even though he walked five and gave up five hits.
“Obviously the game did not start how I hoped with two guys on and a homer,” Teller said. “No one wants to start a game like that, but I was kind of able to let that go. I was happy that I was able to battle and get through five. I walked way too many guys and need to expand the zone better, but I was glad I competed and gave our team a chance to win.”
Larsen had the most impressive performance in terms of numbers. He didn’t allow a runner to safely reach second base in holding down the fort in the middle of the game.
“It was a little eye-opening to see the talent level and see where everybody is, but I’m up here for a reason,” Larsen said. “It was as well as I could have thrown. Home runs here don’t really cross my mind. I knew my stuff was good enough to get guys out, so it was mire limit damage being down by three.”
Larsen was the only one of the three who avoided giving up a long ball, which is an accomplishment in and of itself in Hodgetown. If nothing else, they’ve learned the perils of making the wrong pitch at their new home.
Sometimes, the best anyone can do on the mound at Hodgetown is minimize damage until the home bats get untracked.
“The attitude was to go help out the bullpen guys as much as I could,” Mora said. “I was in the bullpen my whole career at UCLA, so I have a good idea of what a bullpen day looks like and how essential it is to go multiple innings with the bullpen, so I needed to go three although I wanted four or five. The ballpark plays a little bit different so it was definitely something to watch and learn.”
How long Teller, Larsen and Mora stay in Amarillo will depend on several factors. Regulars Slade Cecconi, Bryce Jarvis and Blake Walston, among the organization’s top pitching prospects, will eventually return from the injured list, forcing some roster decisions to be made.
Whatever happens, Roof thinks the experience will do nothing but help the new additions.
“It’s absolutely a confidence boost,” Roof said. “Anytime you move up a level, fit in and have success, it makes you keep working if it means staying here or moving up to the next level.”