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Welcome Back: Former teammates enter minor league baseball together

By Sean Corrado / Staff Writer

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Staten Island, N.Y. – After an hour of heavy rain at Richmond County Bank Ballpark, storm clouds blackened the sky, obscuring the bright lights of Manhattan’s skyline. Matt Wotherspoon ended his chat with teammate Joe Harvey in the left field bullpen and jogged his way to the pitcher’s mound.

With a 3-0 lead, Wotherspoon looked in through a breezy mist for the sign from his catcher. He began the seventh inning with a three-pitch strikeout, paced around the mound displaying his loose-fitted pinstripes and looked back toward the storm clouds that had cleared to once again reveal downtown Manhattan.

It was only a couple months ago when Wotherspoon, 22, and Harvey, 21, were throwing strikes at Cost Field on Pitt’s upper campus but, after the New York Yankees selected both Pitt hurlers in June’s MLB Draft, they are now making batters swing and miss in Staten Island with the Yankees’ Class A short season minor league club.

“It’s kind of unreal,” Wotherspoon said. “It all has happened so quickly.”

They try not to think about the rapid changes in their lives. 

“The scenery is different, for sure,” Harvey said. “But the game is still the same.”

The former Pitt starters did not have much time to celebrate signing professional contracts before getting back on the mound. Shortly after being drafted, they flew to Tampa, Fla., to develop their pitching at the Yankees’ spring training complex.

During two weeks of workouts and conditioning in Tampa, Harvey and Wotherspoon did not see each other. The former Panthers worked with instructors in isolated bullpen sessions to improve their mechanics and get back into pitching shape after the short, three-week layoff from the college season.

Once the minor league rookie training program ended, Wotherspoon was assigned to the Staten Island Yankees of the New York-Penn League, and the 6-foot-2 righty Harvey made a couple of appearances for the Gulf Coast (Fla.) Yankees in the Rookie League, one level below Staten Island, before being called up to join his former Pitt teammate on July 1.

Wotherspoon, of Mountain Top, Pa., pitched the final three frames of the rainy July 23 matchup against the division-leading Hudson Valley Renegades, the Tampa Bay Rays’ squad, for his first professional save. In those three innings, he struck out a career-high seven batters, walked none and gave up only one hit on a soft ground ball that snuck through the infield.

“Gosh, we couldn’t have asked for a better outing,” Staten Island Yankees manager Mario Garza said after the game. “He attacked the zone tremendously with both his fastball and breaking ball. It was a really good sign to just watch him repeat his delivery over and over again. That’s our plan here and that is what we look for.”

Wotherspoon was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 20th round of the 2013 MLB draft but elected to stay at Pitt for his senior season. His decision gave teams another chance to draft him this June, but it would take until the 34th round for Pitt’s third all-time winningest pitcher to go off the board.

Despite the 14-round drop-off, Wotherspoon — who, at the time of production, has allowed only  five earned runs in 23 innings so far this season — has been using his time in New York to grow into a more complete pitcher.

“I am just keeping it simple. Just trying to be a better player than when I came in,” he said. “Just trying to work on the smaller details and things, so each time I leave the field I am better than the last day.”

In 13 appearances for Staten Island, Wotherspoon is 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA and  22 strikeouts. He has allowed only 16 hits and three walks for a very impressive 0.83 WHIP. He has not allowed a run in his last nine innings.

“Matt’s stuff has been great so far this summer,” said Harvey, who has been teammates with Wotherspoon for the last three years. “It’s definitely nice to see him pitching well.”

After being drafted in the 19th round in June, Harvey — from Audubon, Pa. — opted to forego his senior season at Pitt and sign with the New York Yankees. He has also found success in the organization.

In his two appearances in the Rookie League, Harvey threw 2.1 scoreless innings and struck out three batters before his quick promotion to Staten Island. 

Harvey had six strikeouts in his first eight innings of work at Class A, but one poor outing against the first-place Tri-City Valleycats — the Houston Astros’ farm team — raised his ERA to an unspectacular 4.50. At the time of production, it has since come down to 3.18.

“I feel as though my performance [this season] has been good, but not great,” Harvey said, after he allowed one run in two innings against the Connecticut Tigers, Detroit’s New York-Penn League team. “I can definitely execute some pitches better that have hurt me but, overall, I have done pretty good.”

Harvey will not have as many chances to lower his ERA as other members of the pitching staff because the Yankees organization has placed him on an innings limit this summer to save his arm from fatigue and injury. 

In his final year at Pitt, Harvey was moved out of the bullpen and became a starting pitcher, so his arm, which he used to throw approximately 40 innings between spring and summer league, exceeded 75 innings in the college season alone.

“[The Yankees] don’t want me to throw another 40 because the jump might be too drastic,” Harvey said, “so I’m just trying to do my best when I am out there.”

If Wotherspoon and Harvey make the best of the opportunities they receive, chances are they won’t go unnoticed in Staten Island. The minor league club has become one of the strongest  talent producers in Class A since the team was formed in 1999.

Most prominently, Seattle Mariners All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, Yankees Rookie of the Year candidate Dellin Betances and current Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mark Melancon have spent part of their careers with the “Baby Bombers” — the team’s colloquial name inspired by its parent club in the Bronx, a couple city boroughs up the Hudson River.

Garza appears to have high hopes for Wotherspoon’s potential success after an effective start to his short-season campaign.

“[He’s] a tough kid and hard-nosed. His personality is a good indicator that he is going to be able to make it to the next level,” Garza said after Wotherspoon’s seven-strikeout performance.

As for Harvey, Garza noted that he just needs to keep throwing strong innings out of the bullpen and slowly stretch out his arm until it is more comfortable with a heavier workload.

By the end of the season, Harvey sees himself getting important late-game outs out of the bullpen for Staten Island, which is currently one game behind Connecticut for the wild card spot. The short season, which began on June 13, comes to an end on Sept. 1 against the Brooklyn Cyclones, the New York Mets’ affiliate that is also in the thick of the wild card race.

Although the pinstripes Harvey and Wotherspoon wear feature an interlocking “S” and “I” on the left breast rather than the renowned “N” and “Y,” the players have felt the New York Yankees’ presence throughout the clubhouse.

“It’s just an honor,” Wotherspoon said. “The whole staff, club, managers and coaches have been wonderful to me so far.” 

Harvey agreed, saying it is “definitely cool” to be selected by the Yankees and getting the chance to compete for a “storied franchise.” 

For now, the former Panthers spend their nights after home games living in Staten Island hotels, where they can faintly identify the Bronx in the horizon past Manhattan high-rises.

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Welcome Back: Former teammates enter minor league baseball together