Ward, Sherrill eye indepedent ball

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 11, 2011

By Mike London
A.L. Brown and Kannapolis American Legion stars Zach Ward and Garrett Sherrill don’t currently belong to a Major League Baseball organization, but both will continue their professional careers this spring.
Exactly where they’ll be pitching is still up in the air, although Ward says he’ll decide soon between two offers from independent leagues.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander either will head north to Pennsylvania to join the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League or south to play with the Texas-based Grand Prairie AirHogs of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
Ward is married and a devoted family man, so it’s not a decision he’ll make lightly.
“The Atlantic League has that reputation as the premiere independent league,” Ward said. “They’ve got more of the big-name players. That league is scouted pretty heavily and more guys get signed from there by MLB organizations than the other leagues.
“On the other hand, the league in Texas has offered me a contract for about twice as much money.”
Butch Hobson, who played third base for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1970s, is the manager in Lancaster.
Pete Incaviglia, who slugged more than 200 homers for the Texas Rangers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is the manager in Texas.
Incaviglia was one of the great college sluggers of all-time when he was at Oklahoma State (48 homers in one season), and he’s also remembered for once literally driving a baseball through the outfield wall during a batting practice session with the Rangers.
Ward has spoken to Incaviglia, has been impressed by him, and may be leaning toward trying Texas.
“Sometimes it’s all about who you know and who they know,” Ward said. “It’s all about who has the right contacts, and Incaviglia has a lot of them.”
Ward bloomed late at A.L. Brown High, but he was sensational by 2002, his senior year, and was signed late by Gardner-Webb.
He made an immediate impact at Gardner-Webb as a freshman, then returned to the Kannapolis Legion team in the summer of 2003. He went 9-1 on the mound and led Kannapolis to its first Area III championship in many decades.
“A lot of people were telling me that I should transfer to Carolina or some big school because at that point I could’ve gone just about anywhere,” Ward said. “But Gardner-Webb was good to me, and the scouts will find you. The first game I pitched my sophomore year at Gardner-Webb, there were 45 guys sitting there with radar guns.”
After his sophomore year at Gardner-Webb, Ward dominated in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League (1.05 ERA, 57 strikeouts in 422/3 innings). After that, there wasn’t any doubt he’d be selected high when he was eligible for the draft after his junior season.
“I was drafted well,” is how Ward modestly puts it.
The Cincinnati Reds took Ward in the third round in 2005, making him the 92nd overall pick and signing him for a sizeable bonus of $420,000.
His pro career since then has been a roller coaster, and he’s seen most of the cities and towns in the organizations of the Reds and the Minnesota Twins. The Twins once traded consistent big-league hurler Kyle Lohse in a deal for Ward’s potential.
Ward has been as high as the Double-A level. He’s played in Beloit, Wisc., Dayton, Ohio, Ft. Myers, Fla., New Britain, Conn., Sarasota, Fla., and with the Carolina Mudcats.
He was 7-0 with a 2.29 ERA as a starter for Dayton in 2006 and appeared on the fast track to the big leagues. But there’s always been debate about the best role for his powerful right arm, and after a rough year as a starter in 2007, he spent two seasons in the bullpen.
In 2008-09, Ward made 68 appearances in chilly New Britain, 62 of them in relief, and he’s convinced those frequent appearances in cold weather took a toll.
“Pitching in relief a lot in 40-degree weather, my arm just didn’t bounce back all that well,” Ward said. “Not as well as it did when I was in a starting rotation.”
After being released by the Twins and the Reds, who had taken a second look, Ward played independent ball in 2010 with the Lake County Fielders.
He was a starter again. He took the ball 15 games, went 7-5 and put up numbers like the old Zach Ward down the stretch.
“I was throwing 90-94 and felt as good as I ever had,” Ward said. “If I can throw like that again this year, a big-league organization will sign me.”
Ward turns 27 on Friday and is well aware he doesn’t have a lot of chances left. He’s determined to make the most of 2011.
“It really has been a strange career,” he said philosophically. “There have been periods where I’ve just had total domination, but they’ve been followed by periods where I haven’t been any good at all. I’ve just got to find some consistency with my mental approach.”
The 6-foot-5 Sherrill, who graduated from A.L. Brown in 2005, was one of the better three-sport athletes in school history. Besides playing all over the diamond in baseball, he scored 1,000 points in basketball and boomed long field goals for the football team.
A skinny 167-pounder when he left Brown, Sherrill now checks in at a solid 212 and is considering the idea of returning to a small college to finish his education while kicking footballs or playing for the basketball team.
“Basketball is what I love most,” Sherrill said. “I still play three times a week.”
A fixture for the Kannapolis American Legion team from 2003-06, Sherrill won 26 games on the mound and was a driving force for three Area III title teams.
He turned down big schools such as South Carolina to go to Appalachian State, believing he’d get an opportunity to pitch earlier in Boone — and he was right.
He was a starting pitcher as a freshman and performed multiple roles as a sophomore.
After shining out of the bullpen in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2007, he was used strictly as a reliever during his junior season at Appalachian.
He won 18 games and saved 14 in his three years with the Mountaineers and was a 12th-round pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008.
ASU’s Chris Pollard said Sherrill was as good a competitor as he ever coached, but Sherrill didn’t experience much pro success in 2008-09.
Then he suffered a partially torn elbow ligament and was released by the Brewers last winter.
After rehabbing the elbow, he joined his old friend Ward in Zion, Ill., last summer with the independent Northern League’s Lake County Fielders.
“There was great competition in that league, with a lot of guys in their late 20s who had played Triple A and a few who had been in the big leagues,” Sherrill said. “Everyone told me it was the equivalent of Double-A ball, and I was the youngest guy in that league.”
Sherrill was a dominant setup man for Lake County, going 6-2.
“My agent was confident I was going to be signed by a big-league organization at any time because of my age and the success I was having,” Sherrill said.
Then Sherrill got hurt again. This time it was a partially torn labrum in his shoulder.
“It was one pitch, but all of a sudden I couldn’t throw the ball at all with anything on it,” Sherrill said. “It was the first time my shoulder’s ever been hurt. I used to throw 140 pitches in those Legion games. Sometimes I could feel it in my elbow, but my shoulder never hurt.”
He’s been rehabbing the shoulder for months and is feeling great, but he hasn’t tried to throw his deadly slider yet, and that’s the key to his pro success.
There’s a pretty good chance Sherrill will join Ward in Texas, and they’ll be teammates one more time. Sherrill has also talked to Incaviglia.
The season in Texas doesn’t start until mid-May, and by then, Sherrill predicts he’ll be 100 percent.
Sherrill is a newlywed, so he’s facing some big decisions about his future, but he’s confident a big-league organization will sign him if he can prove he’s healthy.
“Honestly, I used to look at the guys playing independent ball as people who were just hanging on to their dream too long,” Sherrill said. “But I’m just 23, and I know can pitch for a lot of people.”