Since the beginning of the season, Derek Blacksher has fancied pitching in Wichita. After signing with Fort Worth in the offseason, Blacksher quickly realized he was part of a crumbling franchise and his wish was to return to the location of his greatest success.
The only thing stopping Blacksher from getting Fort Worth to facilitate his return to the Wingnuts was Blacksher himself. A mild-mannered Texan, Blacksher is hardly the kind to express unhappiness, even when it begins to overwhelm him.
Blacksher finally managed to ask for a trade from Fort Worth manager Stan Cliburn, who explained to Blacksher that a trade wouldn't happen unless the Cats got equal value. When the Wingnuts offered outfielder Ryan Patterson, Cliburn accepted and the trade was executed last Sunday.
Blacksher was 11-3 with the Wingnuts in 2009, leading them to the playoffs as the American Association right-handed pitcher of the year.
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"One of the, I guess you want to call it flaws in myself, I feel like I'm sometimes too nice of a guy," Blacksher said. "In this game, it's a dog-eat-dog world. I think I'm starting to get that. I finally got the courage to go and talk to him. I don't like to burn bridges and I don't want to (tick) anyone off. But to get to where I want to go, I can't be Mr. Nice Guy all the time."
The Wingnuts have pursued Blacksher just as intensely as he's pursued them. Wichita tried to sign Blacksher in the offseason, but Blacksher and his agent picked Fort Worth because they felt the proliferation of scouts in the Dallas area could help Blacksher get to affiliated ball.
Just to be sought after at all is a step up from Blacksher's 2010 season, spent with Newark of the Atlantic League.
He missed about three months and lost 30 pounds due to a flareup of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. Blacksher was first diagnosed in 2002 but had been in remission for eight years.
"When I went back, I was trying to get healthy," Blacksher said. "I was trying to get strength back, so I was playing catchup that whole time."
Blacksher's health returned this season but his time in Fort Worth was hardly more enjoyable. The Cats are, according to Blacksher, losing money and the trouble the franchise is enduring is affecting the players.
Blacksher said he almost missed a start this season when his teammates threatened to skip a game if their checks didn't clear. Blacksher's check didn't bounce, but the stress of such events began to affect his performance. He was 3-6 with a 4.55 ERA at the time of the trade.
"Basically you went to the yard saying, 'What negative thing is going to happen today?' " Blacksher said. "That's basically what it came down to. It was a lot of distractions, but as a ballplayer you're supposed to be able to block those out. There were times I was able to."
Blacksher immediately returned to form in his first start back with the Wingnuts, pitching eight shutout innings in a win over Shreveport-Bossier on Tuesday.
The 26-year-old Blacksher has never pitched above Class-A ball, but his goal is to pitch in the major leagues. He now realizes there is no best place to start toward realizing that goal.
"If you're good enough to get there, there's a point where it doesn't really matter where you are," Blacksher said. "If you're good enough to get there, they're going to find you. That's the approach we had in '09 and it didn't work out, but hopefully it will this year."
Who bats first? —The Wingnuts have tried four leadoff hitters this year, and all have had more success batting in other spots. Josh Horn has seen the most time batting first, going 47 for 171 as a leadoff hitter. That .275 average is below his overall .299 mark.
Mike Conroy batted .266 in 14 games at leadoff, well below his .312 overall average. Jose Duran is batting .333 at leadoff in five games, but that doesn't measure up to his .409 season total. Evan Button was 1 for 6 in his only game at leadoff before being released in June.
Collectively, the Wingnuts' leadoff hitters are batting .275 (72 for 262). Wichita's team average is .313.
Clean it up — Brandon Mathes is living the life of a long reliever, often pitching in blowouts and rarely getting the chance to make a difference in the outcome.
Mathes has recently entered games with scores of 9-0, 7-0 and 5-0 after Wichita's starting pitcher exited early. He has pitched in 29 games but doesn't own a decision.
Fifteen of the last 17 games in which Mathes has appeared were Wingnuts losses.
Mathes' shortest outing in 2011 has been 2/3of an inning. His longest was a 4 1/3 inning outing against El Paso on June 30.