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June 19, 2013

BASEBALL: Clay called up to Triple-A Syracuse, shines in 1st start

CULLMAN — Most employees learn of their promotions in an office setting. As a minor-league baseball player, however, it was only fitting for Caleb Clay to find out about his in a dugout.

Harrisburg (Penn.) Senator manager Matthew LeCroy chose the seventh inning of a recent road game against New Britain (Conn.) to strike up a brief — but extremely informative — exchange with the Cullman High graduate.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Hey Clay, if I were to fly you to meet the Triple-A team on the road, when would you want to fly out?’” Clay recalled. “He was smiling, so I knew something was up his sleeve. That was kind of how he told me during the game. It was pretty cool.”

Even though Clay was filled in about the call-up on Sunday afternoon, LeCroy asked the starting pitcher to keep the transaction on the down low until it became official. So he did and was thusly rewarded with a promotion to Syracuse (N.Y.), the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate, on Tuesday.

Just one day later, Clay was sent to the mound for the Chiefs, making his debut during an away game versus the Charlotte (N.C.) Knights. Though he ultimately didn’t walk away with the win, the former Bearcat showed why he received the promotion in the first place, hurling 6-2/3 innings and allowing both runs in a 2-1 pitcher’s duel.

Clay remained perfect through the first 4-2/3 frames and carried a 1-0 lead into the seventh before giving up a leadoff solo shot. After proceeding to pick up two quick outs, Charlotte managed to put together a rally for one more score, bringing another runner home with a double and bloop single to right field.

That last hit wound up being all she wrote for Clay, who said he quickly noticed his Triple-A competition displayed much more patience at the plate than the opposing batters he’d been facing at the Double-A level. The starter guessed that the Knights only swung at about three of his offerings that weren’t called for strikes.

“It was still just baseball, but I could tell that every hitter had an approach that worked for them,” Clay said. “They had a lot better discipline and really don’t chase pitches out of the zone.”

With Wednesday’s outing in the books, Clay now has playing time at every level — Single-, Double- and Triple-A — of the minor leagues. That leaves just one more step for the 2006 draftee to take to fulfill his dream of playing at baseball’s highest level.

In order to make the ultimate promotion a reality, though, Clay feels there are still three areas of his craft that could use improvement — his arm angle, his velocity and his comfortability pitching to more advanced opposition. It’s not like any wholesale changes are in order, however, seeing as the righty touted a 6-3 record, 3.46 earned run average, 59 strikeouts and one shutout in 75-1/3 innings throughout his half-season stint at Harrisburg.

Clay tossed seven innings of one-run, four-hit ball and struck out eight while not issuing a single walk in his final start — a 3-1 winning effort — as a Senator.

“I think there are still things I could continue to get better at for sure, but you can never be unhappy with good results, no matter how you get them,” he said.

As if making his Triple-A debut wasn’t enough, doing so in front of his family made it all the more special. The Clays arrived in Charlotte late Tuesday night, made it to Caleb’s game on Wednesday afternoon and were already on their way back to Cullman by the time the evening rolled around.

During dinner, Clay said his family joked that if he played for a team anywhere within 10 hours of his hometown, they’d probably be in the stands for all of his outings.

“They’re all extremely supportive and always have been,” the pro prospect said. “Especially my parents because they’ve been by my side since the very beginning, since I was playing T-ball. It’s special for me, but it’s also special for them to see me succeed.” 

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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