Lefties have right stuff

BOB ELLIOTT, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

They came to appraise him — and others, too.

They were packing pens and notebooks and radar guns that can bury a player just like that.

For Evan Grills, 17, this was the fourth February in a row attending a Major League Baseball scouting bureau camp. But this time was of more importance, for finally the Whitby left-hander is eligible for the 2010 June draft of high schoolers and collegians.

A total of 17 scouts, representing 10 teams, aimed their radar guns, ready to cast a judgemental eye at every moving part of Grills’ delivery and others as they took turns on the mound.

Grills, a veteran member of the Canadian junior team, is hitting fourth in this lineup of pitchers at the Ontario Blue Jays’ facility in Mississauga. Position players were to be timed, take ground balls, show their arms and hit inside the cage a day later at RIM Park in Waterloo.

Markham right-hander Jordan Romano of the Blue Jays is the first pitcher on the mound, the first of 70 players being evaluated.

Romano impresses with a fastball clocked at 88 and 89 m.p.h.

He is clearly someone for the scouts to follow, but he’s not draft eligible until June, 2011.

July, 2005

Pearson Park, Guelph

At the Ontario Youth Team tryouts, Shawn Travers, a coach with the Ontario Blue Jays, leans against a fence multi-tasking: Watching tryouts and talking on his cell phone to Dwain Ervin, coach of the Mississauga North Tigers.

Ervin is raving about a Whitby lefty who dominated at the peewee level.

When Travers completed his call, a 13-year-old, standing a few feet down the fence watching his older brother Keith, introduces himself to Travers.

Evan Grills: “I want to pitch for you and the Ontario Blue Jays some day.”

Travers: “You’ll have to wait a few years.”

Feb. 27, 2010

Back in Mississauga

There are three bullpens in front of the boss man in the red coat — Walt Burrows of Brentwood Bay, B.C., the Canadian director of the scouting bureau. He shuffles info cards. Next up is Burlington lefty Billy Ralston of Danny Thompson’s Intercounty Terriers, who moves in front of the only bullpen with an audience.

On one mound, Windsor lefty Evan Rutckyj is getting loose and, on another, Grills begins to play catch from 50 feet.

Ralston has cleaned up his delivery working with Terriers pitching coach Rick Birmingham, the former Atlanta Braves minor-leaguer. Ralston’s fastball registers 88 m.p.h.

September, 2005

Bishop’s Cross, Markham

Grills shows up for his first practice with Danny Bleiwas’ Ontario Jays at the Bishop’s Cross Park ball diamond. At the end of practice, he is told to run poles with the rest of the pitchers, from the right-field foul pole to the left and back. He can’t keep up and finishes dead last.

By the next week, he’s in the middle of the lead pack.

Travers asked Grills’ father, Peter, a Whitby carpenter, what the heck happened?

“He was so upset that he couldn’t keep up, he came home after school every day and ran poles.”

The next fall, Travers arranged for Grills to pitch with the big-budget Dallas Yankees who flew Grills in on weekends to pitch in tournaments.

Grills remembers a game in Atlanta when the other team had already scored a couple of runs. From the dugout, the Dallas team’s manager, Heath Autry, called the pitches. The catcher flashed a sign. Grills shook him off. The catcher flashed the same sign. Grills again shook him off.

Seated on the bucket in the dugout Autry yelled out sarcastically: “Okay, big boy, you’re on your own.” And with that the coach folded his arms.

Grills didn’t allow a hit the rest of his five-inning outing.

Feb. 27, 2010

Back in Mississauga

This draft business is old hat for the 6-foot-5 Rutckyj. The Windsor defenceman was selected in the 11th round by the Barrie Colts in the 2008 Ontario Hockey League draft.

The June baseball draft is a much bigger deal. Dollar signs are at the end of this draft.

Rutckyj, whose father Paul played for the once- dominant Windsor Chiefs, opens eyes. Wide.

“His delivery is much smoother than when I first saw him at the bureau camp at Connorvale last August and more refined than when I saw him in October with the Canadian junior team,” says one scout.

Rutckyj pops one 90 m.p.h.

Then, a 91.

“You’ve got an athletic, 6-foot-5 left-hander, who can hit 91 in February. What’s not to like?” says a scout.

Another, reserving judgement says: “I’ll wait to see him outside in a game.”

September, 2008

Charlottesville, Va.

Facing the Virginia Cavaliers, Grills needs only 65 pitches to hurl the Ontario Jays to a 2-0, seven-inning win.

A Grade 11 student, he beat the Cavs’ starting lineup — the same team that went to the College World Series in Omaha the next spring.

Feb. 27, 2010

Back in Mississauga

Grills stands on the clay mound to deliver his first pitch exactly 100 days before the draft would be televised on the MLB Network.

Pointing his hand-held gun at Grills was Brampton’s Jamie Lehman, hired three months ago to scout Canada by Toronto Blue Jays director of scouting Andrew TInnish.

Lehman had once walked in the teenager’s shoes as an Ontario Blue Jay attending a Perfect Games showcase in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I was awful. Swing and a miss, swing and a miss, tapper to the mound and a pop-up before I found my swing,” said Lehman, a shortstop until one night in Guelph, when coach Wayne Marchand used him in relief.

“Warming up, I threw one over the catcher’s head, one behind the hitter and bounced another,” Lehman remembers. “The plate ump jumps out and yells: ‘Get someone out here who can pitch. Someone is going to get hurt.’ Wayne snapped.”

Lehman attended bureau camps as a pitcher at Etobicoke’s Connorvale Park and London’s Labbatt Park. In 2003, Alex Anthopoulos, then a Montreal Expos scout, selected Lehman in the 29th round.

Lehman got his feet wet a week earlier, scouting the British Columbia Thunderbirds on their California trip. Now he is watching Canada’s best high schooler.

Grills’ first pitch was an 87-m.p.h. strike.

His velocity for the outing was 86-87, with his usual sharp movement and, as always, he threw effortlessly. But not with as much “oomph” as Rutckyj.

Mid-November, 2010

Newark, N.J.

Grills is walking to his gate at Newark Liberty Airport for a Continental flight to Houston when he sees a tall familiar figure, whom he recognizes from the back.

There he was signing autographs, his idol, New York Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte, who pitched at San Jacinto College in Houston before being drafted and signed by the Yanks.

“I told (Pettitte) I was headed to San Jac for a visit,” Grills said. “He said he’d like to talk but his flight was much later.”

Did he ask for an autograph? No, but he shook Pettitte’s hand.

Same thing happened a few years earlier when the Dallas Yankees played a team coached by former Montreal Expo Delino DeShields at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. While most kids raced over to ask DeShields for his autograph at game’s end, Grills walked over, shook hands and said: “Pleasure to be on the same field with a big-leaguer.”

Grills signed a letter of intent both to San Jacinto, a two-year school, and Florida Gulf Coast, a four-year school.

Feb. 27, 2010

Back in Mississauga

Windsor right-hander Joel Pierce of the Tecumseh Thunder throws a fastball at 92 m.p.h. A great afternoon for Pierce.

Guelph right-hander Adam Reynolds, 22, pitching before his Guelph University Gryphons coach Matt Griffin is 90-91.

Grimsby’s right-hander, Connor Smith of the Terriers, was 89. Oakville Royals’ Dolan Dunnigan, son of fomer CFL legend Matt Dunnigan, was on the mound also, with his father watching.

And last man out, right-hander Dayton Dawe of the London Badgers, who is not eligible until the 2012 draft, threw 88. He won’t pitch last next year.

— — —

Grills or Rutckyj?

Rutckyj or Grills?

Who had the better day?

“Grills has pitchability,” a veteran scout says. “He has pitched in Cuba, he’s pitched at the world juniors in Edmonton — coming on in relief with the bases loaded against Chinese Taipei in front of 6,000 people and getting out of a jam. He’s pitched against pros, I’ve seen him get people out when he’s at 89 m.p.h. Velocity is overrated, he can pitch.”

With Greg Hamilton’s Canadian juniors, Grills already has logged 57 innings against pro teams on their spring and fall trips to Orlando.

With the Jays, Grills has pitched 1751/3 innings against either pro or college teams from the fall of 2006 to ’09, walking 61, striking out 191.

“Where are you going to find a high schooler with that much experience against pros? Not in Ohio, or Pennsylvania,” says another scout. “He’s such a competitor. He’s Brett Lawrie as a pitcher.”

Lawrie, an infielder, went in the first round to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008.

“Rutckyj had the better day, but he needs to show it against live hitters. Grills, too,” says another scout. “Overall, with these two, Pierce, Reynolds, Connor Smith, plus Romano for next year and Dawe for 2012, it was one of the better camps I’ve ever been at."

Feb. 28, 2010

Waterloo’s RIM Park

Mississauga outfielder Dalton Pompey of the Royals, catcher Nick Studer of the Toronto Mets, Bowmanville’s Ricky Murray of the Ontario Prospects, Brantford shortstop Brandon Dailey of the Terriers and Toronto third baseman Jalen Harris of the Ontario International Baseball Academy all impressed the scouts. Harris ran the fastest time.

The talk among scouts is of the Canada gold-medal Olympic hockey game later that same afternoon.

“Think I’ll go watch my 9-year-old grandson play rather than watching hockey on TV,” says former Team Canada shortstop Tommy McKenzie, now a Terriers coach.

Next, the scouts will continue their cross-country tour, which takes them to the Academie Baseball Canada at the Claude Robillard Sports Complex in Montreal; the Vauxhall Academy in Vauxhall, Alta.; the Prairie Baseball Academy at Lethbridge, Ala. and the Langley Blaze Indoor Facility at Langley, B.C.

— — —

Grills has received letters from almost all 30 major-league teams. There have been signability visits from the Brewers, the Oakland A’s, the Houston Astros, the Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, Yankees and Tinnish, the Jays scouting director, as well.

“I’m not sure where I’ll go, could be anywhere from first to third round,” Grills said. “My goal is to play pro ball right now.”

This is where teenagers we’ve talked to over the years sometimes stammer, stutter and gulp.

“If I have a good spring,” Grills says matter of factly, “and get my velocity up, I’ll go in the first round.”

He wasn’t bragging.

Just a statement of fact.

bob.elliott@sunmedia.ca


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