In the past decade or so, if you were a pitcher, you wanted to be in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. It seems that year after year the Cardinals reach down into their minor-league system and pull up pitchers who become successful big-leaguers.
Morris Community High School graduate Zach Petrick is living that dream. The first part of it, anyway.
After going undrafted after two years at Joliet Junior College and two more at Northeastern Ohio University, Petrick was signed by the Cardinals as a non-drafted free agent on June 19, 2012. Since then, he has been nothing short of spectacular.
In his first stop, the Johnson City Cardinals of the Rookie Appalachian League in 2012, he went 5-0 with a 2.17 ERA. Hard to top that, but not impossible. All Petrick did in 2013 was go 1-0 with a 0.83 ERA with Peoria of the Single-A Midwest League before moving to Palm Beach of the Single-A Advanced Florida State League. He went 3-0 with a 0.27 ERA there before getting pushed ahead to Double-A Springfield of the Texas League, where he was 3-3 with a 3.99 ERA. He finished 2013 with a 7-3 record and 1.99 ERA in 113 innings, striking out 122 and walking just 27. For his efforts, he was named the Pitcher of the Year in the Cardinals organization, no small feat given the historical depth of pitching in that company.
“That was a crazy year,” Petrick said. “The biggest thing was all the moves. I went from Peoria to Palm Beach to Springfield. Once I would get used to a place, I moved on to another one.”
One advantage Petrick had in his back pocket was his big brother. Billy Petrick had done the moving around in the Cubs organization a few years prior, eventually reaching the big club in 2007.
“Billy was a big help,” Zach said about his brother. “Especially when I moved up a league. He gave me some good advice about not getting nervous and just going out there and competing. The game’s no different. You still have to go out there and do your job, no matter where you are.”
Zach Petrick started out this season at Springfield in Double-A again, but after going 2-0 with a 0.48 ERA in three starts, the Cardinals moved him up to Triple-A Memphis, one step away from Busch Stadium. So far at Memphis, he is 5-4 with a 4.97 ERA. He did have one rough outing July 1, when he was touched for eight earned runs in only 11⁄3 innings, but other than that, he has more or less maintained his level of excellence.
“It’s a whole new league,” he admitted. “I am trying to get to know the hitters in this league now. A lot of them have spent some time in the major leagues and are trying to get back there. They are a lot more disciplined here, and they will definitely take advantage of any mistakes you make.
“The biggest thing for me right now is learning how to pitch when I am behind in the count. I have to throw a breaking ball when they are expecting a fastball, but it can’t be just any breaking ball. It has to be a good one, and it has to be a strike. There’s a lot more riding on every pitch, it seems like.”
Petrick said the key to his success over the past couple of years has been the command of his fastball. His velocity hovers around 90-91 MPH, occasionally heating it up to 93. That’s pretty good, but certainly not enough to get by on. He has added a sinking, two-seam fastball to his bread-and-butter four-seamer, and is beginning to see results.
“It feels good to keep moving up, especially since our farm system is regarded as one of the best ones in the game. I am very comfortable with how they are preparing me if I ever get fortunate enough to get that call to come up.
“It’s good that I have learned the two-seam fastball. I have never really been able to have much success with commanding that before, but now I am getting the feel for it. It’s a nice way to get out of some jams by getting a grounder for a double play.”
At this level, Petrick, who will turn 25 on July 29, knows that every little thing he can do to help himself matters. And for those things, he can harken back to his days as a member of the Morris Redskins.
“You have to be an athlete on the mound,” he said. “You have to field your position and now, I have to bat. I think back to when I was playing shortstop and hitting in high school. If you can make the plays in the field to save a run or two, or lay down a bunt that moves a runner up and he scores, that leads to wins. You have to help yourself in any way possible, and a lot of that is stuff I learned when I was growing up playing ball in Morris.
“I hope I get that call to get on the plane and meet the big club where ever they are, but I can’t really worry about if I will get it or not. I just want to go out there and keep doing my job well enough that they can’t keep me down here forever.”