Blayne Weller retired to the Windy City ThunderBolts locker room. He’d rolled through six innings of work without allowing an earned run on May 18 in his first start of the 2013 season, his second with the Frontier League independent baseball team.
The whispers had started bouncing around the Crestwood, Ill., clubhouse. How long would Weller be with the suburban Chicago T-Bolts? Did the Arizona Diamondbacks really have an eye on the former 14th round draft pick?
“I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever. I’ve heard that 100,000 times,’ ” Weller said.
But this time the rumors were more than that. Two weeks later, following a spectacular second outing that saw the 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher strike out 12 batters in five-plus innings, the D-Backs signed Weller to a minor-league contract. He was on his way to extended spring training within days where he’d soon become an Osprey in Missoula.
The 23-year-old journeyman had found his second chance.
In 2008, the Minnesota Twins rewarded the Key West (Fla.) High School product by selecting him with the 426th pick in the MLB draft. He signed just hours before the deadline that June and entered the Twins’ minor league organization.
At 18 years old, Weller got his first pro pitching experience with the Gulf Coast Twins, Minnesota’s rookie-level team. For the recent high-school graduate, the change was dramatic, even if he was just a few hundred miles from home.
“I was a kid. I was a big kid when I was younger,” Weller said of his first season of affiliated baseball. “Pro ball was scary for me when I was 18.”
Weller began making the climb through the Twins’ system the next season. The hot pitching prospect was now on the radar, reaching Class-A Beloit (Wis.) by 2011 in his fourth pro season. But that’s where his development stalled, at least according to the Twins.
Despite a 6-6 season in which he struck out 73 batters in 85 2/3 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA, Weller found himself on the market again when the Twins cut him from the roster before 2012’s opening day. He was a 21-year-old aspiring pitcher without a job – or much of a fall-back plan.
Weller felt lost, betrayed by the only organization he’d ever known.
“I was heart broken,” the hurler remembered. “It was the worst feeling in the world.”
But he clung to the game, the consistent facet of his life that had always been present. If no pro teams wanted him, he’d hang around trying to prove that they should.
He inked a contract with the River City (Mo.) Rascals, ready to start over in the independent ranks. River City traded Weller’s rights to Windy City just a month later before he’d even thrown a game.
The independent leagues give cast-off players the opportunity to continue in baseball. Boys that have become men don’t have to give up the game, even if they should. So unlike the lower rungs of the minor leagues and places like Missoula, players’ ages range far beyond that of up-and-coming prospects.
“Age is a big thing,” said Eric Meyerchick, an Osprey pitcher and former teammate of Weller’s at Windy City who signed with the D-Backs in 2012. “I was there when I was 21 and I was the young guy. Then I get here and I’m 22 and I’m the old guy.
“It’s just a different atmosphere,” he continued. “It makes you really proud to have that Diamondbacks logo on the right sleeve.”
In the Frontier League, Weller found a timely sanctuary, a group of like-minded ballplayers looking for another shot. They loved the game, even if it didn’t love them back.
“ I actually learned a lot there,” Weller said. “I learned to become more of myself, to create a program that works for me instead of working for someone else.
“The only difference really is me. You’re always around great guys, a lot of talent, but the difference is me being an older person in my soul, I guess you could say.”
The detour led directly to Weller’s return to affiliated ball, he believes, when Arizona decided to pick up the pitcher this spring. Whether it did or it didn’t, Missoula’s pitching coach Doug Bouchtler said it was only a matter of time before some franchise took a chance on Weller’s arm.
“He’s got overpowering stuff,” Bouchtler said. “We’ve had him as high as 97 (mph) here and arms like that don’t grow on trees. As an organization, we’re really lucky to have him here.”
The return to the minors meant Weller was forced to start his climb to the majors all over again, but the pitcher has blossomed for a second time. In 24 innings pitched across four starts with the O’s, the big righty has struck out 21 batters. That’s just one K off the Pioneer League lead.
Only one pitcher has logged more innings in the league through Tuesday’s action and that’s teammate Felipe Perez (29 2/3 innings). Weller has lasted deep into ball games, posting a 2.25 ERA, despite pitching through major jams in his first few starts. Patchy defense has victimized the pitcher and only half of his runs allowed have been earned.
Weller’s record of 1-2 doesn’t reflect how good he’s been, Osprey manager Robby Hammock said.
“He takes the ball and goes out there and grinds it out,” Hammock said. “That’s what we want him to do and he’s done it well. He has been the victim of some unfortunate circumstances, but … he does his job, he’s got a job, and he doesn’t worry about the other stuff.”
The “other stuff” for Weller includes numbers like his wins and losses, but really any other statistics for that matter. His focus is on that next start, guaranteeing one more after that. Then another and another.
Nothing is taken for granted this time around.
“I definitely shed some tears when I signed with the Diamondbacks,” he said. “It was a second chance. I couldn’t have asked for anything more in a second chance.
“It was definitely a (sign), like, ‘You need to keep working, you’re really supposed to be in baseball,’ in my eyes.”
Reporter AJ Mazzolini can be reached at 523-5298, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.MissoulaPreps.com or @ajmazzolini.