Kevin Pillar played college baseball at a Division II school before being drafted in the 32nd round by the Toronto Blue Jays. But since turning pro in 2011, Pillar has done one thing very well -- hit the baseball.
Making his Double-A debut this season, the 24-year-old outfielder hit .330 in April and went 4-for-5 against Reading on May 4 before going hitless in 12 straight at-bats to drop his average to .314. But he stormed back with four hits against New Britain on May 17, and on the season is hitting .337 with 12 doubles, four homers, 11 steals and 22 RBIs in 43 games.
"I'm definitely happy," Pillar said of his early returns with the Fisher Cats. "My first two years of pro ball, I did not get off to great starts. It was very rewarding to get off to a good start. It was a testament to the hard work I put in during the offseason."
Pillar worked out this past winter at a training site in California that draws Minor and Major League players, including Barry Zito and Cole Hammels.
"I went in and had a good Spring Training and did not want to leave anything to chance," he said. "I went with the mindset I had to earn a spot" with New Hampshire.
Pillar is certainly turning heads in the Toronto system, just as he did at the college level when he set a Division II record with a 54-game hitting streak while at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
"We're not surprised by Kevin's success in Double-A. He hit at every level before he signed and has continued to do the same since joining us," said Tony LaCava, vice president, baseball operations/assistant general manager for the Blue Jays. "He has a very simple, compact swing that stays in rhythm and on time."
Pillar hit .322 in 335 at-bats with 20 doubles, five homers and 35 steals last year for Class A Lansing of the Midwest League. He was then promoted to Class A Advanced Dunedin of the Florida State League, where he hit .323 in 164 at-bats with eight doubles, two triples, a homer and 34 RBIs with 16 steals in 19 tries.
Now he's attacking Eastern League pitchers, though he knows they are better than what he saw last year.
"They're able to throw three or four pitches for strikes. Maybe in the Florida State League they have one or two. You definitely have to be prepared to hit multiple pitches," Pillar said.
Another transition has been learning to play different outfield spots during his pro career.
"Early on I was getting used to playing left field every day. In college I only played center. Last year was my first playing the corner. This year was my first time playing left field full time," he said.
Pillar played high school ball in California and had an early offer to Fresno State, where his brother was going to school. "But the plug got pulled on that" due to transfers from Long Beach State that took up roster spots, he recalled.
He was invited to Loyola Marymount as a walk-on, but the tuition was too expensive, so he ended up at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
If he keeps hitting, could Pillar make it to Toronto this year, perhaps as a September callup?
"I would like to believe so," he said. "It's out of my hands."
Two aces: New Britain manager Jeff Smith was happy when he heard the Twins had acquired Trevor May in a trade with the Phillies before this season, having watched May first-hand when he pitched for Reading in 2012. The Twins also acquired Alex Meyer in a trade that sent Denard Span to Washington, and Smith now has both May and Meyer in his rotation. "I give [Twins general manager] Terry Ryan a lot of credit. He went out and made these two trades. Both can be front-end-of-the-rotation guys," Smith said.
Left in: Binghamton outfielder Cory Vaughn, in his first season at Double-A, has feasted on left-handed pitchers early on. The right-handed slugger is hitting .464 and one homer in 28 at-bats against lefties, and .256 with four homers in 86 at-bats versus righties. The son of former Major League slugger Greg Vaughn, the Mets outfielder from San Diego State hit 23 homers last year for Class A Advanced St. Lucie in the Florida State League.
Back in Bowie: After starting the season at Triple-A Norfolk and making his big league debut with Baltimore in early May, pitcher Zach Clark is back in Bowie and working on becoming a knuckleball pitcher. Clark was signed by the Orioles as an undrafted free agent out of University of Maryland-Baltimore County in 2006. He turns 30 in July and last year was 10-5 with a 3.19 ERA in 20 games, including 19 starts, for the Baysox. He was an Eastern League All-Star.