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Prospect spotlight: Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright

By C. Trent Rosecrans | Blogger

Like a superhero, every knuckleballer has an origin story. It usually starts like most other baseball player's story, but then with a bit of adversity, they look down deep and find a rare talent, emerging as one of the game's great oddities.

Steven Wright is no different. The 27-year-old right-hander was a second-round pick of the Indians in 2006 out of the University of Hawaii and with a fastball that touched 94 mph, he was considered a prospect as a starter as he started his pro career. In 2008, he had a 3.66 ERA in Class A and Double-A, pitching 147 2/3 inning and striking out 119. By 2009, he'd reached Triple-A and he was back at the minors' highest level in 2010. And that's when he hit a wall, appearing in nine games at Columbus, and giving up nine runs in just 10 2/3 innings and was demoted to Double-A Akron.

With his confidence down, Wright started toying with the knuckleball, a pitch he first started throwing as a 9-year-old when he was coached by former Red Frank Pastore. At first, he used it as just an out pitch, trying anything that would help keep his dream of the big leagues alive. It was the knuckleball that caught the attention of his pitching coach at Double-A Akron and former big-leaguer Jason Bere, who was working in the Indians' front office. The Indians started encouraging Wright and his knuckleball and in spring training of 2011, they brought in former Indians knuckleballer Tom Candiotti to work with him.

"He was the one who talked me into it and told me I had something special," Wright said. "He said maybe I could use it and he was the one who got me started trying to go with it full time."

From there, Wright was a whole different pitcher, starting at the bottom of the minor-league ladder at low-Class A. As a dedicated knuckleballer, Wright pitched at both levels of Class A, as well as Double-A and Triple-A last season, going 4-8 with a 4.58 ERA while working as a dedicated knuckleballer.

This season it's clicked, and he's 10-6 with a 2.44 ERA in 21 starts at Double-A and at the non-waiver trading deadline was acquired by the Red Sox for first baseman Lars Anderson, once thought to be Boston's first baseman of the future, but who was blocked by Adrian Gonzalez. Wright made one start for Boston's Double-A Portland team before being promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on Wednesday.

"I still look at it last year, you think if it's really what I wanted to do, but now that the Red Sox took a chance on me -- I was all in before, but now it's 100 percent, no doubt in my mind that I'm going to be successful throwing the knuckleball or I'm going to fail throwing the knuckleball," Wright said. "But that's what I'm going to do. I'm 100 percent for it, I feel like if the Red Sox take the opportunity to give up a player for me, I want to give it back to them to work hard and perfect something that not many people feel can be perfected."

In his first week as a member of the Red Sox, he got a call from the recently retired Tim Wakefield. He's also been in contact with the Mets' R.A. Dickey, as well as Charlie Hough and Candiotti.

"Every knuckleballer wants to continue to see knuckleballers and the knuckleball continue, so they're going to do everything they can to help that person be successful and help prolong the life of a knuckleball," Wright said. "It's a lost art. It's not that people don't know how to do it, it's just about people wanting the chance to risk their career on a pitch that's unpredictable."

Like Dickey, Wright throws a harder knuckleball than the tradition knuckler -- throwing it in the mid-70s and low-80s. And even though he's a member of the Red Sox, he watches Dickey's success and is thankful. Because of Dickey's success, he knows it's more likely he can get a chance down the line.

"I watch what he does and that's literally who I want to be," Wright said. "I want to do what he's doing right now. He's showing that you can command the knuckleball, you can command it for strikes. You can hold the running game, you can do everything a conventional pitcher can do but do it with an unpredictable pitch."

PROSPECT NOTES

• Dylan Bundy wasn't the only 19-year-old called up to Double-A this week -- the Red Sox promoted 19-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts to Double-A Portland in the Eastern League. At high-Class A Salem, Bogaerts hit .302/.378/.505 with 15 home runs and 64 RBI.

• After two weeks, Trevor Bauer is back on the mound. The Diamondbacks' top pick in the 2011 draft made one start at Triple-A Reno following his demotion from the big leagues before getting a break. He was back on Monday, throwing six shutout innings for the Aces, allowing five hits and two walks with five strikeouts.

• The day after Jean Segura, one oft the three prospects acquired by the Brewers in the Zack Greinke deal, made his big-league debut, the Brewers placed another, right-hander Johnny Hellweg, on disabled list. The move, however, was more of a precautionary one than anything -- he's already thrown 129 2/3 innings this season and the team wants to limit his innings over the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the team's first-round pick in 2011, Jed Bradley, was placed on the DL and is unlikely to return. The left-hander out of Georgia Tech was 5-10 with a 5.53 ERA in 20 starts and had thrown 107 1/3 innings. He was 1-6 with a 7.26 ERA in his last 10 starts.

Reds shortstop Billy Hamilton stole three bases on Wednesday, despite going 0 for 3. WIth the three steals, Hamilton now has 131 on the season and needs 15 to break the all-time minor-league record of 145 set by Vince Coleman in 1983. Hamilton's team, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos of the Double-A Southern League, has 24 games remaining. His 131 steals have come in 109 games at Bakersfield of the California League and Pensacola. He has 27 stolen bases is as many games for the Blue Wahoos, That places him fourth in the Southern League in stolen bases -- behind three players who have peach played 97 or more games this season. The Brewers' Josh Prince leads the league with 40 stolen bases in 114 games. Hamilton's 131 steals already place him third on the all-time minor-league list. In addition to Coleman's 145, Donnell Nixon stole 144 in 1983 for Bakersfield.

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