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Minoring in baseball

Single A pitcher is able to hit the books at Stanford, too

For Vermont Lake Monsters pitcher Jack McGeary, every day is a learning experience - on a ballfield or in a classroom. For Vermont Lake Monsters pitcher Jack McGeary, every day is a learning experience - on a ballfield or in a classroom. (Caleb Kenna/For The Globe)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 23, 2009

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BURLINGTON, Vt. - One of the biggest things Jack McGeary has learned in professional baseball is how to sleep. Not that the man wasn’t practiced at the art of slumber before he left his bedroom in Newton, Mass. The trick now is to collect a full ration of zzz’s while crammed into a seat on a bus rumbling overnight from outposts such as Aberdeen, Md., and Jamestown, N.Y.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at it,’’ says McGeary. “It sounds like a joke, but it’s a big thing. Some guys can’t sleep. We’ve gotten in from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. a couple of times and it seems like my turn to pitch always falls on those days.’’

Creative sleeping is just one skill that the 20-year-old lefthander for the Vermont Lake Monsters, Washington’s minor league affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League, has developed during an apprenticeship that began here two years ago and presumably ends in Nationals Park in April of an unspecified year.

What makes McGeary’s situation unusual is that he has been balancing college and baseball in his bid for a twin payoff - a Stanford diploma and a major league career. It may have been a coincidence that one of his freshman courses was “Epic Journeys, Modern Quests.’’

The Stanford journey is well ahead of schedule. McGeary, a classics major, has been loading up on courses during the fall and winter quarters, and midway through his sophomore year, he already has 100 of the 180 units required to graduate.

His baseball progression has been less linear. After last year’s solid season in the Gulf Coast rookie league that earned him a season-ending cameo here, McGeary struggled this spring in Hagerstown, the franchise’s full-season Single A club, and was sent back to the Lake Monsters, where he’s 2-4 with a 3.59 earned run average.

Half of his 10 starts have been stellar, with McGeary allowing no more than one earned run. Three were clunkers, most recently last Wednesday’s home outing against Jamestown in which he gave up six earned runs in four innings on seven hits and three walks in a 13-0 laugher.

“There are going to be days where you feel lights-out and there are going to be days when you feel [lousy],’’ says McGeary, the youngest pitcher on the Lake Monsters’ staff. “It comes and goes like that. Finding consistency is hard throughout a five-month season.’’

The clunkers, as well as the gems, are part of what Spin Williams, Washington’s minor league pitching coordinator, calls “the seasoning of a pitcher,’’ which usually takes several years.

“Some of Jack’s numbers aren’t what you would like to see,’’ says Williams, who was here last week working with Vermont’s 15-man staff, “but he has competed. We really feel good about his progress. He’s really still a first-year player.’’

Unusual arrangement
What the Nationals liked about McGeary when he played for Roxbury Latin two years ago hasn’t changed: He’s a tall and sturdy athlete (6 feet 3 inches, 195 pounds) who’s smart and disciplined with great “makeup’’ and a sound left arm that uncorks a biting breaking ball.

“I thought at worst he’d be a big-league reliever,’’ says Williams, a former pitching coach for the Pirates. “With that curve, he could really spin the ball.’’

The issue in 2007 was signability, since McGeary had a scholarship offer from Stanford, which seldom loses recruits to the pros. Yet while Washington picked him in the sixth round (190th overall), the club reckoned that he had first-round talent, which is why McGeary was offered a special deal. The Nationals would pay him a $1.8 million bonus plus his Stanford expenses (roughly $200,000 over four years). McGeary would work out on his own, following the club’s plan, go to spring training during his academic break, and play in the minors during the summer.

The arrangement generally has worked well, although it put McGeary into an odd limbo on campus, a ballplayer who wasn’t playing ball for the school. Though he was rooming with three members of the Cardinal varsity, including fellow Nationals prospect Drew Storen, McGeary wasn’t allowed to use the school’s baseball facilities and had to drive down the road to Santa Clara University.

One day when Stanford was playing archrival Cal at its famous Sunken Diamond, McGeary was throwing to older brother (and Harvard basketball player) Dan on a nearby high school mound. By then McGeary already had been to spring training and was bound for the rookie league, where he went 2-2 with a 4.07 ERA over a dozen starts.

The Gulf Coast League, with its afternoon games against day-trip Florida rivals, isn’t typical of the demands of minor league life, which require what Vermont manager Jeff Garber calls “the maturity of how to handle the grind of a season, start after start after start.’’

When he was a senior at Roxbury Latin, McGeary had only seven starts, which still amounted to nearly half the school’s schedule. This year he already has had 23, with three more to come.

“There are days when your body just doesn’t want to get out of bed,’’ he testifies. “You haven’t had an off-day in a month and you come in from a long road trip and you’ve got to be at the field at 2 o’clock to start stretching. You think, ‘I just want to stay at home and sleep all day long.’ ’’

A taste of failure
Every minor leaguer can play the game. The question is, can he play it every day from April through August on diamonds with pebble-strewn infields, lumpy outfields, and poor lighting? Can he play it on short sleep and a fast-food diet? Can he handle going 1 for 30 or giving up a run an inning?

McGeary blew everyone away in the Independent School League and held his own in rookie ball. When he got to Hagerstown, his control went haywire, and he was saddled with an 0-6 record and 6.79 ERA, with 45 walks in 55 innings. So the Nationals decided to send McGeary back to Vermont, where he could fix his mechanics while still getting regular work.

“He obviously had some adversity in Hagerstown,’’ observes Williams. “We wanted to give him a fresh start here.’’

They also wanted to see how well McGeary would handle taking a step back.

“He’d never failed before and he has to deal with that,’’ says Garber. “That’s what the minor leagues are all about. But Jack came up here with a good mind-set: It’s where I’m headed, not where I’ve been.’’

After a rocky start at Batavia, McGeary posted a strong outing at Auburn, then walked seven in four innings against Oneonta. He pitched masterfully in front of friends and family at Lowell, then gave up five runs in four innings at Aberdeen, lost at home against Lowell, then allowed just one earned run in his next three starts before last week’s unraveling against the Jammers.

“It’s easy to say that after a bad outing you can put it away and move on to the next one, but it’s tough to do,’’ McGeary says. “I think that’s what makes good pitchers really good. They can take a good or bad outing and put it in the past and move on.’’

A position player can come back the day after an 0-fer and go 3 for 4. A pitcher has a week to sit and stew before a chance at redemption.

“When you get in trouble is when you say, ‘I have to pitch well, I have to have a good outing,’ ’’ McGeary says. “Because when you put that kind of pressure on yourself, it’s more likely not going to happen.’’

What McGeary has learned is to leave both success and failure at the ballpark.

“When you start carrying what happens here off the field,’’ he says, “you’ll kill yourself mentally.’’

The most significant part of McGeary’s seasoning has been the evolution of his psyche - the next pitch is the only thing that matters.

“One of the skills I’ve developed this year is moving on when something doesn’t go my way,’’ he says. “Whether it’s a missed call, an error or someone hitting a good pitch.’’

All he can control, McGeary has learned, is how the ball comes out of his hand and how he reacts to the outcome.

“You can’t control what the organization does or what other guys do,’’ he says. “The bottom line is, how good can you be?’’

Chance for advancement
When the season ends Sept. 6, McGeary will take a couple of weeks off, then go back to Palo Alto and immerse himself in the classics. Then he’ll turn up at spring training and go wherever the Nationals send him.

Odds are that it’ll be back to Hagerstown, says Williams, although McGeary also could be assigned to the advanced A club in Potomac. Harrisburg is where the dividing line is likely to be for all of Washington’s prospects. Most of the hitters in Double A have more than 500 professional at-bats. They don’t chase bad pitches and they can punish any fastball left up in the zone.

“If a guy can succeed in Double A,’’ says Williams, “he can be a pitcher in the big leagues.’’

The advantage of being drafted by a last-place club is that top prospects can move up fast, as righthanded phenom Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ new $15 million man, is expected to.

“I don’t think there could be a better organization to be in right now,’’ McGeary says.

The disadvantage for pitchers is that Washington has been loading up on them, drafting 77 over the last three years. But if McGeary can stay healthy and on track, he has a chance to make it to The Show.

“I’m far,’’ he reckons, “but not that far.’’

The next task is to expand his repertoire, adding a two-seamer and a sinking fastball. But McGeary’s bread and butter likely will be that biting curve that wooed the scouts.

“In the future, it’s going to be my pitch, eventually what gets major leaguers out,’’ he figures. “It’s going to be my go-to pitch.’’

Meanwhile, the seasoning of a pitcher continues, on campus and off.

McGeary’s classical studies tell him all about Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. But Morpheus never had to ride the bus from Jamestown to Aberdeen and take the mound that night. Epic journeys and modern quests have a different meaning when you’re jolted awake at 2 a.m. en route to Mahoning Valley.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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