LAKELAND — A funny thing happened to Zach Stewart on the way to his audition as a starting pitcher Tuesday.
A relief appearance broke out.
Stewart was supposed to pitch the fourth and fifth innings against the Tigers, after Ricky Romero handled the first three. Suddenly, though, as Stewart warmed up in the bullpen, Romero hit a wall and the next thing he knew, manager John Farrell was walking to the mound, summoning Stewart in the bottom of the third.
The bases were full of Tigers and Miguel Cabrera was waiting in the batter’s box with one out. Gulp.
“It was pretty much like coming into the lion’s den, with a bunch of good hitters ready,” said Stewart.
Stewart threw a first pitch strike at the knees, then tried a fastball inside. But instead of inside, it caught a bit of the plate. Cabrera drilled it to the left-centre gap for a bases-aclearing double.
“It’s a situation where you have to make the pitch if you’re going to last in this game,” said Stewart. “It’s something I’ll just take, learn from it, and next time put that pitch as far in as I can and not out over the plate.
“Coming from my background, I used to be in the bullpen. That was what I did. So, coming into that situation, I should have made the pitch. But I didn’t.”
Cabrera also scored before Stewart got out of that inning. He pitched two more innings, twice allowing baserunners uncontested steals of second base.
“I felt great sometimes and at other times I felt like it was the first time I’d ever pitched,” he said. “It was chaotic at times, and sometimes I felt like I would get in control. I let two guys pretty much walk off first base to second base on me. That’s something I have to work on.
“When you have an outing like this, it shows you what you have to get better at to progress to the next level. I’m going to take those things and mold them into what I have to get done.”
At times this spring, manager John Farrell has essentially ruled Stewart out of the competition for a starting spot this year. At other times, he has said Stewart could pitch his way on to this team.
“It’s March 1, and while we’re focused on some other names, I wouldn’t completely rule him out,” Farrell said Tuesday morning. “I don’t want to say the door is completely closed on him.”
If that is to happen, Stewart will have to take Tuesday’s lessons immediately to heart. He’s an intelligent kid with a strong work ethic and a serious competitive streak. He has a potentially dominant fastball and has improved his command of the strike zone in the past year.
“He’s as impressive as any young pitcher we’ve got here,” said Farrell. “Not just in terms of his stuff, but his mound presence, the way he carries himself and a genuine, quiet confidence around camp.
“He’s got a chance to have dominating stuff. It’s exciting to see a guy of that age and experience level to come in here and throw like he does.”
What he needs to do is build on his innings totals. The 2010 season was his first full season as a starter and he tossed 136 innings. The jays would like to see him build to 160-165 innings this year.
“We’d also like to get him so he’s available late in the season,” said Farrell. “If we choose to bring him along a little bit slower in the month of April to budget those innings effectively, that’s an option.
“But, barring how we try to control his innings, what we’re not going to be able to control is his ability and he’ll find himself at the big league level in a relatively short period of time.”
If and when he goes to the minors, he will be going to Triple A Las Vegas even though its known as a league that eats up pitchers because of its offensive reputation.
“Sometimes with those offensive environments, pitchers learn more about themselves with the conditions they find themselves in,” said Farrell. “There are a lot of good pitchers who have come through the coast league. We want to make sure he gets exposed to those adverse conditions and learns to deal with it.”
One thing is certain: whatever challenges he’ll face, none will be more demanding than his season debut on Tuesday.