Tucson pitcher Tommy Layne was ready to become a firefighter last year, until a move to the bullpen made him a completely different pitcher.


Tommy Layne stood in the airport, headed to San Antonio but further still - deeper into a minor-league system that had demoted the left-handed pitcher and made him question whether it was time to give a firefighting career a try.

He had spent the first month of the season with the Diamondbacks' Triple-A team, and had done the opposite of putting out fires. In five appearances, four of them starts, the left-hander posted an earned-run average of over 10.

In May, he was traded to the Tucson Padres for cash - a song, really - and posted a 7.77 ERA in five starts.

That earned him a demotion to Double-A San Antonio one month later, a step backward, if not the death knell, for a 27-year-old in a system packed with starting pitchers of higher pedigree.

Before Layne boarded the flight to San Antonio, he picked up the phone and called Terry Kennedy. From the airport, he wanted the then-Tucson Padres manager's honest opinion: What did the organization think of him?

"He basically told me it's an uphill battle to get to the big leagues," said Layne, who will start the Triple-A season tonight in the Tucson Padres bullpen when the team opens at Salt Lake. "'I'm not saying you can't, but it's going to be an uphill battle. It's going to be very tough.'"

Kennedy looked prescient when, through two games as a starter at Double-A, Layne allowed 10 earned runs over 10 innings.

At that point last year, he was 0-7 in 11 starts for three teams.

His career was on life support.

"For a lot of guys, especially in the minor leagues," he said, "the only thing you have, the only thing you're holding on to, is hope."

There was little left.

He'd been dating the same girl, Meghan Wagstaff, since 2008, and she was about to graduate dental school at the University of North Carolina.

He wanted to propose marriage, but he had no money.

Worse, Layne worried that he was going to be released before the season ended. Even if he lasted the season, the organization had no obligation to keep him: He wasn't on the 40-man roster.

With a degree in criminal justice from Mount Olive College and connections in the fire department back home in St. Louis, Layne figured he could become a fireman, and maybe work his way up to arson investigation.

Layne made another phone call, though - this time to San Diego assistant general manager A.J. Hinch, and asked if he could move to the bullpen.

Players never do that. Ever.

Hinch said yes. San Antonio was bringing in more promising starters, anyway.

"He said, 'Everything's going to have to fall in place just perfectly for you to have an opportunity.'" Layne said. "I said that's fine, even if the opportunity doesn't come for a couple years."

For Layne, something clicked.

He attacked hitters, knowing his outing was short. At maximum effort, he gained four or five miles per hour on his fastball. His breaking pitches were more effective.

Over the next two months in Double-A, he allowed three earned runs in 25 2/3 innings.

"Tommy's a great testament to what your mind can do," said Pat Murphy, who worked in the organization last year and will make his Tucson managerial debut tonight. "You start to learn yourself at an older age."

On Aug. 13, Layne was called up to the big leagues.

In his debut the next day, he struck out the side against the Braves, and joked he'd never done that before, at any level.

In September against the Dodgers, he did the same against all-stars Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez.

Layne finished the season with San Diego, posting a 3.24 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings.

Layne will start this year with Tucson after a slow spring training.

It beats the alternative.

"If I would never have called A.J. … I'd like to think something would have turned around," he said. "But if it didn't, and I was still struggling with what I was going to do, there's a chance I could be a firefighter right now."

Six weeks of a big-league paycheck bought him something else: financial security.

When the season ended, Layne bought a wedding ring and proposed.

He's getting married in November.

Contact reporter Patrick Finley at pfinley@azstarnet.com or 573-4145. On Twitter @PatrickFinley