When Tucson Saguaros ace Clay Miller takes the mound Thursday night at Kino Stadium, he’ll try to continue a charmed season.
Miller has help from batterymate Sal Palumbo.
The two have the rapport of players who have worked together for years, even though they first met in May.
Palumbo keeps the lefty loose.
“If I catch him in a little funk, I go out to the mound and don’t talk baseball,” said Palumbo, who played for the Santa Fe Fuego and Salina Stockade last season. “I just make him laugh and get him back focused on the task at hand — the batter in the box. It’s anything to keep him less tense; that’s what I’m here for.”
The approach has been working. Miller is 5-0 with an 0.94 ERA for the Saguaros, who will host the Monterey Amberjacks in a three-game series starting Thursday. The pitcher has struck out 40 batters and has walked just nine. He has allowed six runs all season.
Miller is one of the main reasons why the defending Pecos League champions are back on top of the Pacific Division. Tucson enters Thursday’s game with a 24-9 record, two games ahead of second-place Bakersfield.
“I had no idea what to expect with this opportunity to play baseball,” said Miller, who turns 23 Friday. “I never thought I’d start out 5-0 with a 0.94 ERA. It’s crazy.
“I trust in my team and my catcher, Sal. It’s easy to play with them behind me. I just try to throw strikes. We have fun, and we laugh a lot. (Sal) keeps me from getting nervous or tense. It’s his confidence that makes it easy for me. He calls the exact pitch I had in my head, so I don’t have to think strategy.”
Miller’s journey to the Saguaros has come with peaks and valleys.
The Kansas City Royals took Miller, a Colorado native, in the 35th round of the 2013 draft. He opted to attend South Mountain Community College instead. He was stellar as a freshman, striking out 45 batters and working to a 1.45 ERA before being shut down with an elbow injury. He underwent Tommy John surgery, putting his future in doubt.
“It was a year and a half of rehab, then — with setbacks — 2ƒ years before I could be competitive,” said Miller. “There were moments I thought I was done with baseball — that I would never play again. All my family and friends kept pushing me to keep trying.”
When Miller saw an ad for tryouts for the Saguaros last December, he jumped on it.
Miller’s fastball, his favorite pitch, is clocking 88 to 92 miles per hour.
“The kid is unreal,” said Palumbo, who is hitting .347 with five RBIs. “There is nobody like him; hands down the best lefty I have ever caught.
“I think (his success) is because he is a lefty throwing so hard, and he throws a heavy fastball. I call an inside fastball to get broken-bat groundouts a lot. He breaks bats, stays in the game long, is not wild and does everything right. He is one of a kind.”
JD Droddy, who is currently managing the Salina Stockade in the American Association, recently noted that other leagues are monitoring Miller’s progress.
“I’m confident he will succeed when he moves up,” Droddy said. “He definitely has a quality arm.”
For now, Miller is staying focused on what’s next: staying healthy with rest, ice, stimulation and stretching in between starts and is enjoying playing at Kino Stadium.
“Tucson is amazing,” Miller said. “The host families and the fans do a lot for us. We love them. My team is like family. We have each other’s back no matter what happens.
“We have a ton of fun playing in Tucson, especially in Kino. I love it. It is one of the nicest fields; it’s huge, and the mound is nice, and it is maintained well. We are lucky to be there as it is definitely the best field in the league.”