He is the forgotten one. Pudgy and lucky, he sprouted from the cornfields of Nebraska and within two years, was staring down Barry Bonds, unfurling a pitch, and making the legendary outfielder fly out to right field.
Mike Zagurski had a cup of coffee — albeit strong, laced with unsuitable expectations in the midst of a cloudy pennant race. He swallowed it, but boy was it arduous. Before eliciting the fly ball from Mr. Bonds, Zagurski was ripped by those very same Giants, a three-run slapping that brought the country boy down to Earth. A rim-rocking like that might break a skeletal 24-year-old, but not Zagurski, who settled in with nine quality outings in his next 11. Maybe it was his meaty frame, his giddy cheekbones and wide eyes. Or maybe it was the “never say never” spirit that had so often defined Zagurski.
Born in Omaha, Neb., Mike Zagurski wasn’t a touted high schooler. He didn’t open any eyes, didn’t command scouts. For one, the prime heartland of America isn’t a place for brutish sluggers and lanky-armed pitchers. Pat Burrell was an Arkansas boy, but quickly acclimated to the bright sunshines of Miami. And Cole Hamels was a San Diego kid, a carefree spirit who was destined to stumble his way into greatness. Zagurski was a paunchy left-handed pitcher with more guffaw than gusto. Heck, his name didn’t stand out — the type of Polish moniker that rested nicely in your church newsletter, not on your scorecard. So it is no surprise he wasn’t drafted out of high school. And it is no surprise he wasn’t cajoled by a division one school. Or a division four school. Instead, Zagurski landed with the Blue Dragons of Hutchinson Community College.
This elite program wasn’t quite the funnel for big-league talent. Since 1991, the Blue Dragons spit out two professionals: Rick Croushore and Craig Dingman. The former went 5-11 with a 4.88 ERA over parts of three big-league seasons. The latter landed small stints in the majors and hasn’t been back since 2005. Unlike these players, Zagurski didn’t finish at Hutchinson, but moved to the University of Kansas. Because of his success there — which included a school record for strikeouts, the Phillies selected the “never say never” kid in the 12th round of the 2005 draft.
Zagurski managed to stay with the Phillies for two solid months, thanks to a horribly organized and performing bullpen that included retreads such as Jose Mesa and Kane Davis. Of the minions that shuffled in and out of the Citizens Bank Park bullpen, Zagurski was the most promising, carrying a devastating slider that offset a seemingly mid-level fastball. In small doses against left-handed hitters, Zagurski would prove elite, but in other situations? In 50 at bats, right-handed hitters were striking at a .340 rate. A classic one-trick pony.
The trick ended in Pittsburgh.
A string of terrible outings ended Aug. 18, 2007 in Pittsburgh, as Zagurski tore his hamstring, ending his season. The Phillies carried on, mainly because of the otherworldly surge of left-hander JC Romero, but Zagurski sat on the sidelines. His big opportunity had exploded in his face.
It was a charmed opportunity. The community college kid landed in Batavia upon signing in 2005, and climbed to Lakewood in 2006 thanks to strong strikeout rates. An even better rate in 2006 (75 strikeouts in 57 innings) propelled him to Clearwater for 2007, where his swift ascent began. Sixteen innings in Clearwater, seven innings in Reading, nine innings in Ottawa and suddenly the community college kid from the cornfields of Nebraska was pitching at Citizens Bank Park for a team competing for a division championship. When the lucky roll turned to blanks, one wondered how Zagurski could respond. He went from high school nobody to major league situational lefty in four years — how could he possibly feel now?
We still don’t know the answer. Zagurski seemed primed to return in 2008, but elbow pains turned to Tommy John surgery, which derailed his return to the point of questioning his viability as a minor league pitcher. And yet Zagurski survived that. Now he’s on the fields of Clearwater, practicing with the major league players as if nothing changed in two years.
But things did change.
For one, the Phillies are no longer scrounging for relief pitching. Sure they would like to add a left-handed arm, but it’s surely not a threatening matter. Instead, the Phillies have their solidified closer, two tested setup men, a couple strong middle relievers and various options. Now the Phillies are the gold standard — no longer the battle-weary collective of retreads and afternoon specials that surrendered hit after nail-killing hit.
For two, Zagurski hasn’t thrown a professional pitch since that fateful night in Pittsburgh. Does the slider still handcuff lefties? Can the fastball improve? These questions won’t be answered for a while, and it’s hard to believe the most positive of results. Once Zagurski had to prove he could improve upon his foundation; now Zagurski must prove he still has a foundation.
Despite all of this, Zagurski remains, running and tossing with the big leaguers. He stays optimistic that he can help the Phillies defend their world championship in 2009. He is a little lighter, a little swifter, but nowhere near the man who induced a fly out from the mighty Barry Bonds.
Things can change in a heartbeat. The Phillies might need Zagurski in April, much like the way they needed him desperately in May 2007. And all over again, the forgotten one will have to prove himself worthy of the challenge — that he can throw a fastball to set up his slider. That he even has a fastball and a slider. But heck, this won’t be the first … or fourth time Zagurski has had to prove himself worthy.
Mug of Malcolm is published every Sunday at www.philliesnation.com.