A 6-week stint in the recently completed Arizona Fall League (AFL) might be exactly what Rock Falls native Seth Blair needed.
Blair, who played baseball and basketball at Rock Falls High School, was one of seven St. Louis Cardinals prospects and one of 34 former first round draft picks playing for the Surprise Saguaros. Blair was the 46th pick of the Cardinals in the 2010 draft.
The Saguaros were made up of players from the Mets, Cardinals, Royals, Rangers and Red Sox orgnizations.
As the 23-year-old makes his off-season home in Phoenix with his girlfriend and two dogs, the AFL was a great cure for a difficult season in which he suffered an enchondroma tumor between fingers on his pitching hand and the ensuing surgery limited him to 20 innings of rehab work.
In 2011 – his first year of pro ball – he pitched for the Quad Cities River Bandits of the Midwest League and endured a difficult year as he was 6-3 with a 5.29 ERA, 70 strikeouts and 62 walks in 81 2/3 innings.
Cardinals pitchers coordinator Brent Strom has worked with Blair, who also was a standout at Arizona State University.
“He was a young guy who did not perform the way either of us expected," Storm said of Blair's first season. "His command of his fastball disappeared and he got in long counts and walked too many hitters. He has major-league command of his curveball and relied on that. It was the command or lack thereof on his fastball that killed him."
“I could have enjoyed it more if I pitched better, but it was definitely a good experience," Blair said. "It is something that I learned from and that is what it is really about.”
In his three seasons at Arizona State, he was part of a terrific three man rotation which included Mike Leake (Reds) and Josh Spence (Padres/Yankees organizations). Blair compiled a 23-5 record for the Sun Devils and earned numerous awards including the Pac 10 Pitcher of the Year in his third and final year in Tempe.
Blair appreciates the time spent behind Leake in the rotation,
“It was unbelievable," Blair said. "I got to see a guy that does the right things and gets better every day and takes the game seriously. I watched the progress he made from his sophomore season to his junior year and then pitching in the majors the following year. It is always something I will cherish and I look to him for advice.”
Carlos Ramirez, a prospect for the Angels who also played in the AFC, was Blair's catcher at Arizona State.
“He is the same a dominant pitcher, Ramirez said. "He just comes right after you, Nobody is a harder worker. He made my job as a catcher much easier.”
During the AFL season, Blair and Spence were able to catch up and discuss pitching as each were very familiar with the other’s game, delivery and repertoire. Along with some good advice from Strom, Blair put together an outstanding AFL season.
Jason Wood, the Sagauro Surprise manager and a member of the Rangers organization, left feeling impressed by Blair.
“I don’t know him too well off the field but his work ethic is second to none.” Wood said. “I think his main focus was to get innings to establish his command with that fastball. He has definitely done that with both his command and miles per hour. I really enjoy watching him pitch with his competitive nature. He is a good kid with a bright future.”
In six starts, he was 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA, 22 strikeouts, and 14 walks in 20 innings pitched.
His ERA and walk totals ballooned as a result of one abnormal outing where he allowed five walks and three earned runs.
In his most impressive start, he limited the Phoenix Desert Dogs to three hits and one earned run in four innings.
More importantly, he threw only 49 pitches, 37 for strikes. This efficiency was exemplified in the first inning as he induced the first two batters to hit first pitches back to him for easy outs, and the third hitter hit the second pitch weakly to the second baseman.
“The Cardinals have been great, sticking with me and giving me every opportunity to succeed. Out here it has just been a change in my mindset," Blair said. "I know who I am and I know who I can be. I have one goal on my mind and that is to pitch in the big leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals. I don’t know if it is going to happen, but I am going to do every single thing that I can to get there and if that means working hard every day or making adjustments that they want me to make then I am willing and able to do whatever I have to do.”
Blair in the AFL
Team: Sagauro Surprise
Record: 2-1Innings: 20
ERA: 2.25Strikeouts/Walks: 22/14