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Pro Baseball: Kannapolis’ Ward dominating in Double-A

By Mike London
Salisbury Post
Ask Zach Ward to name the best hitter he’s faced in the Double-A Eastern League this season, and there’s a long pause on the other end of the line.
Silence speaks volumes.
While Ward, who toils for the New Britain Rock Cats in Connecticut, can’t come right out and say it, no one in the Eastern League has aggravated him. No one’s taken him deep and few have made solid contact with his trademark ó a vicious slider.
In 18 relief appearances and 30 innings, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound right-hander has allowed one ó that’s right, one ó earned run.
The 24-year-old Ward has found a job that could have him pitching for the Minnesota Twins in the future.
Ward is a set-up man now, and while little glory comes with that relief assignment, it’s a vital role. The way big-league games are played now, with starters asked to throw six innings before turning things over to the bullpen, capable set-up men determine pennants, and they are compensated well.
“For every minor-leaguer, the dream is to get to the majors,” Ward said. “If it’s this role that gets me there, that’s fine with me and I’ll keep doing this forever. This is the best I’ve ever pitched in my life.”
Ward has traveled an interesting road.
A late bloomer, he started figuring things out as a junior at A.L. Brown. He was dominant as a senior and led the Wonders to a tie for the 2002 NPC championship with a star-studded East Rowan team that included third-round draft pick Cal Hayes Jr. and current pro hurlers Bobby Parnell and Spencer Steedley.
Ward signed with Gardner-Webb, turned in an electric freshman season, then came home to spark the Kannapolis Legion team to the 2003 state tournament.
After two more productive seasons at Gardner-Webb, Ward was the 92nd pick in the 2005 draft, a third-round selection by the Cincinnati Reds.
Ward dazzled in the low Class-A Midwest League in 2006 at Dayton and won his first seven decisions as a pro starter. That summer, the Twins swapped Kyle Lohse, a decent big-league starting pitcher, for Ward in one of those prospect-for-veteran deals that are annually made at the trade deadline.
Ward’s fortunes cycled downward after that. Switching teams, but staying in the Midwest League, he didn’t fare as well for his new farm team in Beloit.
Then 2007 was a nightmare for Ward, at least in terms of wins and losses. As a starter for a weak Fort Myers team in the high Class-A Florida State League he received little offensive or defensive support.
At one point, Ward had a 3.04 ERA and a 2-10 record. He finished 5-17 and was among the loss leaders in the minor leagues.
“That season was stressful, but it’s not something that I frown on talking about,” Ward said. “I didn’t have good luck at times, but there also were times when my team scored runs and I didn’t get the job done.”
Looking back, Ward figures he got beat on his third-best pitch ó a changeup ó too often. Starters need a minimum of three pitches, but in Ward’s current role he rarely sees the same hitter more than once, and he can thrive with two.
While Ward’s won-lost record in 2007 was unsettling, the year wasn’t wasted. He refined his unhittable slider and developed his two-seam fastball, which dives like a submarine and produces groundballs.
The Twins assured Ward they weren’t concerned about 5-17 because his strikeouts (107 in 130 innings) were there, and he allowed only five homers.
“The Twins kept telling me just to keep doing what I was doing and to keep my head up,” Ward said.
It wasn’t idle chatter. The Twins had him travel with the big-league club for three Spring Training games and he pitched OK (one run) in an inning against major-league hitters in the last one.
Then he was assigned to New Britain and handed a role in the bullpen.
A breakout has followed.
Everything has fallen into place for Ward ó physically and psychologically.”Everyone wants to start, so it was a little bit tough going to the bullpen at first and not knowing if I was going to pitch that day or not,” Ward said. “I had to get my mindset right, but I understand now I’ve got an important role, and it’s a role I like. I know I’m going in the game in the seventh or eighth if we’re a run up, a run down or we’re even.”
Ward has figured out location trumps velocity. He’s thrown hotter gas in the past, but he’s getting results now while working in the 89-90 mph range.
The biggest key to numbers that include a 2-0 record, 27 strikeouts and a ridiculous 0.30 ERA is a mental adjustment. He no longer gives hitters more credit than they deserve.
“I don’t worry about the name of who I’m pitching to or worry about his batting average,” Ward said. “I’m concentrating on pitching to my strengths instead of to someone’s weakness, and it’s been working.
“Last year, I was worried about working up and down, in and out, and now I just go right after everyone. I try to get ahead in the count with two-seamers and make them hit the slider.”
Or at least try to hit it.
Ward remembers only one ugly inning ó April 26 against Trenton, a New York Yankees farm club.
Ward walked the bases full in the ninth in a tie game but worked out of the jam. He went back out for the 10th with a 4-3 lead, got two quick outs and was on the verge of earning a win.
Ahead 0-2 he walked a hitter. Then he gave up a single and hit a batter to load the bases. Danny Graves, Cincinnati’s all-time saves leader, replaced Ward and promptly walked in a run.
Ward was charged with that earned run, and it’s still the only one he’s allowed.
Graves, attempting a comeback, has been promoted to Triple-A Rochester. Ward is optimistic he’ll make that same trip soon.
“This is an organization that gives you opportunities to move up if you’re putting up numbers,” Ward said.
Ward is putting up numbers hard not to notice.
And after a little thought, the best hitter he’s faced in the Eastern League?
“The guy for Trenton that got the single off me,” Ward said with a chuckle. “I don’t remember his name.”
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Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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