Bob Lutz

Singleton waits for his chance

If you stop everything you're doing and be real quiet, you can hear the cries.

"We need pitching,'' baseball general managers at all professional levels — except in Philadelphia — are saying. "We don't have enough pitching.''

It makes me want to scream back: "Hey, look in Wichita."

There's a guy pitching here, for the Wingnuts, who is 11-1 with a 2.99 ERA. He has led the independent American Association in ERA two of the past three years and is in the hunt again.

Nick Singleton doesn't have a 95-mph fastball. His slider won't remind anyone of the second coming of Steve Carlton.

But Singleton gets batters out. And while I understand it's easier to get batters out in the American Association than the American League, it's still an art. And pitchers who can do it are valuable.

Yet Singleton sits and waits for a call that might never come.

"I think scouts look at it as they don't want to be the guy to make the mistake of signing me,'' Singleton said. "'If nobody is giving this guy a chance, why should we?'''

After an 8-0 start this season, Singleton did get picked up by the Monclova Steelers in the Mexican League, the equivalent of a promotion to Triple-A. Monclova wanted Singleton to help the team make a playoff push. Instead, he went 1-1 in three starts with a 7.11 ERA, injuring a muscle in his triceps in the process.

That audition, obviously, didn't go the way Singleton wanted. And once Monclova fell out of playoff contention, Singleton was released. The Wingnuts wasted no time giving him a lifeline and Singleton, who starts tonight against Amarillo at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, has been an ace.

Being an ace, though, isn't always enough.

"It's been this way my whole career,'' he said. "Even when I was in college (Auburn-Montgomery) I was overlooked because of my size and a lot of other different reasons.''

Chief of which is Singleton's lack of a signature pitch. His fastball is steady at 88 mph and can occasionally get to 90. His assortment of other pitches doesn't cause a baseball scout to open his notebook and start writing.

"A scout told me during my senior year in college that I was a dime-a-dozen pitcher,'' Singleton said. "He told me my size (6-foot, 170 pounds) was going to kill me and that I wasn't going to get many opportunities if I got any at all. They wanted guys with bigger bodies.''

So it could be that Singleton's professional baseball career was destined to be as an independent league monster. In six seasons at that level, he's 45-26. And it's so difficult to get opportunities when you're a 28-year-old without sizzle on his fastball.

Singleton, though, never gives up. Dejected about only getting three starts in Mexico, he hasn't shown it since returning to the Wingnuts, where he has been the team's Justin Verlander, albeit with about 10 mph less juice.

"I love being here,'' Singleton said. "We have a good ball club with a lot of talent. It's a good town. I like my situation here.''

If the Wingnuts can take care of business in their remaining six regular-season games, Singleton will get a chance to anchor a pitching staff in the American Association playoffs. The postseason excites any player at any level of professional baseball.

"It's so much fun to be in a pennant race,'' Singleton said. "Especially during our three games against (Gary Southshore) this week. You can just look at the faces of everybody in the dugout and see how much they want it.''

Singleton is putting together his great season in a league that treats pitchers poorly. To give his 2.99 ERA perspective, the American Association's cumulative ERA is 5.14. And that's significantly better than 2010 (5.65).

This league is mostly about hitting, so finding a pitcher who can consistently get outs is worth a lot. There is only one other pitcher in the American Association — Sioux Falls' Ben Moore — who rivals Singleton. Moore is 12-3 with a 2.69 ERA and, at 30, is in his fourth season with Sioux Falls.

Singleton can relate to the frustration Moore surely feels.

"It's all about seizing the moment,'' Singleton said. "When you get an opportunity, if you fail to perform that could be your only opportunity.''

Singleton is thankful he got a chance to pitch in independent baseball after so many scouts told him he wasn't the type who went far in baseball. But there's a voice inside that tells him he's capable of so much more.

Three starts in the Mexican League weren't enough for him to show what he could do. He was hopeful of pitching in Mexican Pacific League this winter, but the team that drafted him doesn't have a roster spot for him. He'll have to wait for that season to start to see if another team will pick him up.

"It weighs on my mind,'' Singleton said. "It used to bother me a lot. I wondered why. In my first year of independent ball I led my team and in some cases the league in several pitching categories. I knew for sure I was going to get picked up by an organization. I was young and I thought, 'Here we go.' But it was nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. And it's been that way. There were a few bites along the way. I had a couple of scouts follow me and tell me they might give me a shot in Double-A, but then they'd go with someone else.''

Singleton keeps coming back. He works his winter jobs back home in Montgomery, Ala., taking care of baseball fields, working for the city or being a maintenance man/security guard on a riverboat cruiser. He's not married, so he doesn't have the financial stress of a family to worry about.

There's not much more he can do at this level of baseball, but doing what he's done has only given him three starts in the Mexican League.

"I would love to get a chance in affiliated baseball at the Double-A or Triple-A level,'' Singleton said. "Or an opportunity to go back to Mexico, because that was a very high level of baseball. Do well there and you can get chances in Japan, Korea, Taiwan.

"But time sneaks up on you. Just the other day, it seems like I was in my first year of pro ball. Just a young guy who plenty of time to make mistakes.''

Time is running out.

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