There are many rising stars in Major League Baseball, but three stand out: Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Chicago Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney and Philadelphia Phillies reliever Mike Stutes.
Why these three? They were part of Oregon State’s dominating run and are currently excelling on the big stage.
Ellsbury led the Beavers to their first College World Series appearance in more than a half-century in 2005. That season, his junior year, he hit .406 as their co-captain.
His blazing speed, excellent defense and offensive ability caught the eye of the Boston Red Sox in that year’s draft. Taken 23rd overall, he quickly moved up the minor-league ladder and reached the majors in 2007. He immediately wowed crowds and his teammates, hitting .353 in 33 games after being called up.
As pitchers found weaknesses, his numbers predictably dropped in his first full season, as he reached base only 33.6 percent of the time. He did steal 50 bases, but overall it was a disappointing follow-up performance.
He bounced back in 2009, batting an even .300 with 13 more RBI, 33 more hits and 20 more stolen bases in only eight more at-bats. He was the electrifying player Boston had expected, living up to potential.
After suffering a rib injury that shelved him for most of the 2010 season, Ellsbury entered spring training this year with his spot in the lineup and in center field reserved. Now, could he produce and get back to his 2009 form? Boston would certainly need him to.
As good as Ellsbury has been throughout his career statistically, he has been frustratingly inconsistent at times, which partly has to do with his swing and how much drive he generates. He struggled to begin this season because his follow-through wasn’t crisp. He was hitting down on the ball, resulting in ground ball after ground ball and making out after out.
After going 0-for-4 on April 20th, Ellsbury’s batting average stood at .182. He has hit in all 19 games since, and his average is currently sitting at .300. He’s obviously seeing the ball much better, at his 2009 level, and his swing is no longer chopping down on the ball. Instead, it has an upward trajectory, and as a result he’s lifting pitches and often lacing them into gaps all over the field.
“He’s been on base, he’s been able to run, he can go from first to third, he can steal a base,’’ manager Terry Francona said to the Boston Globe. “We’re a different team. The havoc that you see some other teams do to us, he’s able to do to them. They have to pay attention to him. It makes us a better team.’’
“Just knowing that if you get a hit, the team gets a run, it’s great,” added Adrian Gonzalez, who has been a force in the middle of the lineup. “He’s been doing an incredible job the last three weeks or so of finding ways to get on...drawing walks, getting hits and extra-base hits, and being aggressive on the bases, which just helps everybody.’’
Surely the Chicago Cubs are saying the same thing about Barney, who shot through their system after leading the Beavers to back-to-back College World Series titles in 2006 and 2007.
He was on the 2005 team with Ellsbury and was also prolific at the plate, but unlike the center fielder, he struggled upon being called up to the majors. Appearing in 30 games with the Cubs towards the end of the 2010 season, he went just 17-for-79 with a 29.4 on-base percentage.
He has reversed course in 2011, greatly impressing Chicago as one of its more consistent hitters. He is currently hitting .331 and particularly flourished in April, winning NL Rookie of the Month honors with a .326 batting average, 14 RBI and 15 runs.
Not only has he hit well, he has also fielded well, committing only two errors at second base after making the switch from shortstop. He beat out accomplished veterans Blake Dewitt and Jeff Baker for that starting second base job, with young Starlin Castro the shortstop of the present and future.
“I think we feed off of each other,’’ said Barney to the Chicago Sun-Times regarding his relationship with Castro. “He’s such a smart baseball player, it makes it easy to get along with him out there.’’
Though the team is a mediocre 16-18, it has plenty to be happy about, and it is clear Barney will be an integral part of any success they have this season. Manager Mike Quade loves his enthusiasm and isn’t altogether shocked at the way he is producing.
“I’m not as surprised as people think,” he told the Sun-Times. “He’s probably off to a better start offensively than I thought, but not defensively. The way he meshes with the shortstop [Castro], those things don’t surprise me. I think they’re important to each other, and I think they’ll get better as time goes on.’’
The Phillies think Stutes will continue to improve. The reliever, who closed out games during Oregon State’s magnificent run, has helped save a struggling bullpen and is turning some heads along the way.
Called up late last month, Philadelphia hasn’t wasted any time seeing what Stutes can do. With a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider approaching 90 on the gun, he has appeared in six games and only allowed two hits combined in his first four before relinquishing two runs against Atlanta. Prior to that outing against the Braves he recorded his first career hold, and overall he has struck out three and walked four in 4.2 innings.
A larger role appears on the horizon for Stutes with the Phillies bullpen depleted. Just as Barney teams up with Castro, Stutes has fellow reliever Antonio Bastardo by his side. Twenty-four and 25 years of age respectively, the duo has impressed manager Charlie Manuel with the ability to hold down the fort despite their inexperience in light of the injuries suffered by Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge.
All three former Beavers have stepped up and, in the process, have drawn rave reviews. With a winner’s mentality from their college days under manager Pat Casey, it would be surprising if they didn’t continue to.