For Mike Zagurski, Time To Prove Worth Again – Phillies Nation
Mug of Malcolm

For Mike Zagurski, Time To Prove Worth Again

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



  1. Phan in TN

    February 22, 2009 at 7:28 am

    Zag is exactly the kind of pitcher I would and do cheer for. Granted, I do cheer for Hollywood Hamels on occasion, but we need a regular looking guy who is made of cheese steaks and tastykakes.

  2. NJ

    February 22, 2009 at 7:34 am

    The kids exactly what the Phils need, a second lefty to throw some innings early while Eyre does the hard graft. A Beimel who could really soak up innings would be nice but if Park is pitching relief but it could so easily result in too many arms for not enough innings, having a guy to lean on early and then send down (barring injuries) wen Romero returns could really set the pen up nicely for the stretch.

  3. MDefl

    February 22, 2009 at 9:18 am

    This guy is exactly the type who will have a long major league career. It may not be with the Phils in the end though. He is a battler and being left handed helps. I think he will wind up in triple AAA. If he does well, he could be traded. There is something that I really like about this guy.

  4. MDefl

    February 22, 2009 at 9:22 am

    The whole lefty/righty situation out of the pen has changed somewhat due to the emergence of Madsen as a top 8th inning guy. Now you really just have to worry about a lefty for a batter or 2, typically to get the Phils into the 8th with Madsen and 9th with Lidge. I think Eyre can handle the load by himself until JC returns. Especially with off days in the beginning of the year. I would rather the Phils find a quality RH bat to come off the bench.

  5. BurrGundy

    February 22, 2009 at 9:53 am

    This article is really well written and makes me a Zagurski fan. He is the John Kruk of the pitching world –pudgy and proud and professional.

  6. Gavin

    February 22, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Will he be ready for opening day?

  7. Greg V.

    February 22, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Zagurski has got this “average joe” thing going on. You kind of see it in Joe Blanton too. There’s nothing flashy about them, they just get out there in pitch. I hope Zagurski returns. He looked like he had promise and still does. I figure a strong spring may not put him right in the big league club, put it will put him on the right track.

  8. Robbi P

    February 22, 2009 at 10:47 am

    I love these types of stories about overcoming injuries to try and make the team. I think it’s this aspect that seperates us from the Yankees. We give our players another shot to overcome their injuries. I guess I could be biased but I don’t think many other organizations don’t give up on their players even when they suffer these long term injuries. I am hoping that Zagurski somehow helps the Phillies during the year. Being polish, I am also secretly rooting for him haha.
    The other player that I’m hoping will contribute to the team this year is Scott Matheison. I feel so bad for this guy. I mean, two Tommy John surgeries? Thats got to be very hard to overcome and that’s what he is doing. I’m hoping he can help out the bullpen in the future as well.
    Is there any update on Drabek’s rehab? I haven’t heard anything about our former first round pick?

  9. Joel

    February 22, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Zagurski will get his chance this yr. Hopefully he performs the way we hope he can.Also, I think once Romero comes back will help thie bullpen bc he will be fresh and the phils will need a fresh veteran arm around that time. But, guys like Zagurski, Matheson, etc have their chance to make an impact on this team until then.

  10. Manny

    February 22, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Nice piece, Tim.

  11. fred

    February 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Zagurski’s a nice story, but come on guys; he was never that good in the first place, and chances are he’ll be even more mediocre having not pitched for 2 years and suffering TJ surgery. In 21 innings he walked 11, which is awful, and had an ERA of 5.91. If someone that poor gets a spot in our pen, we’re really strugling. It says alot that just to get those 21 innings Mesa, Alfonseca and Davis had to fail first.

  12. NJ

    February 22, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    But all we need right now is a lefty to fill out the rotation throwing some middle-relief until Romero returns. We just need someone to be available and throw some situational outs and garbage innings so guys like Condrey and Durbin don’t have to and Eyre can thrive on the workload until his innings are cut back.

    Health willing things could work very nicely considering Eyre needs innings to be effective and Romero will be on a short season. Assuming Park relieves, you throw another innings eater in there and your asking or trouble, Zagurski gives flexibility for a role that’s really going to be about keeping the rest of the pen off the mound when it doesn’t need to be.

  13. feech

    February 22, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Yeh, yeh great story i feel for the poor guy. With that being said this guy sucks. Everytime i watched him pitch it was when the game was already decided. When he did pitch in close games he was erratic and not very poised. His control was a big issue than and how do you think it will be now after surgery ? All im saying is be careful what you wish for.

  14. Mr. A-Hole

    February 22, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Why do you give a shit about this tubby f*ck?

  15. Rusty

    February 22, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Great article Tim.

  16. Pingback: » Phillies Competitions: 5th Starter, Temporary Lefty Set-up Man |

  17. jeff spots

    February 23, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Great article about Zagurski. he is my hero and I hope he comes back even better then before. I love some of the comments that were made on this site. remember baseball is a sport it’s.. entertainment. It’s nice to see the rude comments about a 25 year old human being. For those of you who thinks he sucks.. Did you butt heads play pro baseball? Didn’t think so. Then shut up. Either support his comeback or stop watching it’s a game for fun stupids. Be careful he probably will make you eat your words in a couple of months. Since when did we become such a asshole society? You arm chair coaches get a prozac and enjoy the game…… So he’s chubby.. fat guys kick ass. Go Z

  18. Lewisauce

    February 23, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Nice piece, Tim. (Dudes, don’t get upset about Mr. A-Hole; he’s likely just a Met troll.)

    I’m not ripping on Zagurski’s physique, and I know most injuries just happen, but does anyone think that maybe his lack of conditioning maybe contributed to the injuries? I don’t know about the elbow tendon/TJ problem, but the torn hamstring sounds like something that would never happen to, say, a Hamels/Moyer/(in-shape) Myers because those guys are conditioned enough to avoid it.

    Just a thought. I hope Zagurski gets himself together physically and contributes to the Phils in this repeat year.

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