Pro Baseball: Peeler learning the ropes, happy with his decision
ROCKWELL — It was June 23, and Joe Peeler was 2,100 miles from home in Arizona.
He was standing on a pitcher’s mound preparing to face a professional hitter for the first time.
Peeler’s right arm had propelled fastballs 90 mph for the East Rowan High Mustangs, but he couldn’t feel his arm — or his legs.
“It was a big jump for me from high school to facing pros, older, more experienced players,” Peeler said. “My legs were shaking.”
That first game — In the Arizona Rookie League against guys wearing White Sox uniforms — was rough. Peeler pitched one inning with four hits and three runs. But you have to start somewhere, and Peeler knew when he signed with the Seattle Mariners that there were going to be traffic cones and potholes in the road. Experience is the best teacher in baseball and sometimes experience comes in the form of line drives.
Peeler, wearing a No. 74 jersey, debuted as a pro in the eighth inning with the Mariners trailing 7-0. He got a groundout from the first man he faced. The next four batters hit for the cycle — single, homer, triple, double. Just like that, it was 10-0. Peeler finished the inning with a flyout and a groundout and his shaky legs transported him to the dugout with an ERA of 27.00.
But put it in perspective. The player who rapped the double off Peeler was Cody Daily, a Southern Illinois graduate about to turn 23. Daily finished the season with the Kannapolis Intimidators.
Meanwhile, Peeler was 18.5 years old and 10 days removed from his his high school graduation.
“I left for Arizona the day after I graduated,” Peeler said. “I’ll never forget that.”
June became a whirlwind for Peeler after the Mariners made him a 25th-round draft pick on June 10.
He had signed with UNC Wilmington, and the Seahawks tried hard to convince Peeler college was his best option. But had he headed to UNCW, he wouldn’t been eligible for the draft again until 2018.
The Seahawks own a fine track record and had five players drafted this year, but Peeler didn’t want to wait.
“UNC Wilmington coaches came to the house for a meeting after the draft and bumped my scholarship offer up (from a partial) to a full ride,” Peeler said. “But pro baseball is my dream. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get started.”
There were adjustments to make for Peeler in Arizona. The off-field ones were more challenging that those between the white lines.
“I was living in a hotel and I didn’t have a car, so I was walking everywhere,” Peeler said. “It was pretty bad at first.”
Fortunately, Peeler was prepared for tough times. Bobby Parnell, the New York Mets relief pitcher who graduated from East Rowan 13 years before Peeler, had offered advice. As a 21-year-old, with three years at Charleston Southern University under his belt, the Mets had assigned Parnell to their farm team in Brooklyn, N.Y., and it was a serious culture shock for a North Carolina boy.
“Bobby told me those first two weeks away from home would be the two most terrible weeks of my life,” Peeler said. “He was right, but I stuck with it.”
It got better.
Family members visited and alleviated the homesickness.
Success on the mound came in baby steps, but it happened. Peeler produced five straight scoreless appearances in July. He was credited with saves against the Angels and Reds.
“My best game was against the Padres (on July 10),” Peeler said. “I relieved with the bases loaded in the seventh and got a groundout. Then I had a 1-2-3 eighth.”
There was a night that 30-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was on a rehab assignment from the Arizona Diamondbacks, was kneeling in the on-deck circle. Peeler was warming up, getting ready to face a guy who hit 25 homers for the Boston Red Sox in 2012.
“That would’ve been something, but I didn’t get to face him,” Peeler said. “The guy batting in front of him made the third out.”
Peeler experienced a bout of tendinitis and didn’t pitch in a game between July 20 and Aug. 15.
His last outing of the season against the White Sox on Aug. 22 was a struggle. Both of his ugly outings came against the White Sox, the team that beat the Mariners in the final round of the playoffs to win the Arizona League championship.
Peeler’s final numbers — nine appearances, 0-1, two saves, a 9.72 ERA, five strikeouts, eight walks, nine hits — weren’t wonderful, but this season was about getting his feet wet.
“The numbers weren’t great,” Peeler said. “But I was attacking the strike zone and throwing a lot of strikes. The game started slowing down a little more every time I went out there.”
Peeler went 4-4 with a 1.77 ERA for East Rowan as senior. He struck out 75 in 63 1/3 innings.
Peeler’s pitching coach in Arizona, Rich Dorman, made changes, mostly with the curveball that often was Peeler’s bread-and-butter pitch in high school.
“I’ve worked a lot on it,” Peeler said. “My curveball broke more like a slider. Now I’m throwing a real 12-to-6 curveball.”
Peeler said the Mariners like what they’ve seen so far. He’s coachable, and he’s got the stuff you can’t teach — height (6-foot-4), a loose arm and a long, lean frame that’s going to add power and muscle.
The Mariners have Peeler consuming a product called “MuscleMilk.” His weight already has risen from 175 when he was drafted to 185.
Peeler’s focus the next three months will be on building up his legs and gaining weight and strength. The Mariners believe Peeler needs rest more than he needs to throw, so he won’t be pitching in a fall league. He’s been instructed not to pick up a baseball until January.
He’ll report to the Mariners camp in Peoria, Az., on March 8.
“Next year is going to be a really important year, and I’ll be ready for it,” Peeler said.
The first question everyone asks him is if he had it to do over again would he still pass up the college life for the hard-knocks experience of the pros.
“I’m happy with my decision,” Peeler said. “No regrets. After those first few weeks, I loved it.”