West Michigan's Corey Knebel ran out to the mound to pitch the ninth inning against the South Bend Silver Hawks on Sunday. Seven pitches later he was dealing out high-fives and heading for the clubhouse, picking up his eighth save in eight opportunities.
A first-round pick (39th overall) by the Detroit Tigers in June, Knebel signed for $1.4 million and was thrown into the fire of full-season ball in the Midwest League -- and he's been fighting fire with fire.
His 95 mph fastball, power curve, slider and changeup have burned the opposition, who are hitting .167 against him. The 6-foot-3 right-hander has a 1-0 record with a 1.13 ERA in 16 appearances. He's allowed two earned runs over 16 innings, yielding nine hits and seven walks with 17 strikeouts.
Dominating as a closer doesn't mean that Knebel will be working that role in the Tigers' instructional league, however.
"It's still up there, whether I'm going to be a starter or a closer," Knebel said. "Either way is fine with me. Right now, closing is what's happening.
"I love being a closer. I go in there knowing that, hey, if I give up a run, we lose the game. It's all in my hands. There's a lot of competition. I'm not relaxed, and that's what I like about it. I wouldn't mind being a starter. Starting is something I love. I did it in high school. I'm more relaxed when I'm starting."
David Chadd, Detroit's vice president, amateur scouting and special assistant to the general manager, said the Tigers will likely make a decision about Knebel this fall.
"We like his pitches," Chadd said. "He throws a great fastball with a power breaking ball, and he also throws a slider and a changeup. He had a dominating career at the University of Texas as a closer.
"We drafted him with the idea of making him a starter. We thought the best plan for the Tigers and for Corey this spring was keep him as a closer. We may address that in the instructional league. He's done so well, you can't rule out that we may just leave him as a closer. We could possibly try to start him, as well, because he has four good pitches."
Chadd said Knebel's command gives the Tigers options.
"For us, it comes down to mechanics, delivery, arm action and the ability to throw pitches for strikes," Chadd said. "We saw Corey do that at Texas, and we continue to see it in pro ball."
Knebel's performance has rewarded the Tigers for what was considered a potentially risky pick. Knebel had two suspensions within two months at Texas, which raised eyebrows just before the Draft. He was suspended for a dugout confrontation with his pitching coach and again for providing urine for a fellow Longhorns pitcher's drug test.
"It caught my attention," Knebel said of the suspensions. "I needed to watch who I trusted. I needed to trust people who I know will have my back. I tried not to let it get to me. I didn't think I'd go first round because of the suspensions, but it all worked out. The suspensions were definitely learning experiences."
Chadd said the Tigers didn't feel they were taking a risk drafting Knebel in the first round.
"It was a concern, but we did our work," Chadd said. "I felt good about the situation. We felt like it was just an individual who made some mistakes. We spent some time before the Draft talking to him. We felt comfortable with the answers we were getting from him."
Moving time: Danry Vasquez showed up at the ballpark Monday expecting to take batting practice with his West Michigan teammates; instead, he was told to pack up and get to the airport. Vasquez, an outfielder who was signed for $1.2 million by the Tigers in 2010, was traded to Houston in a deal for Astros closer Jose Veras and a player to be named later. Vasquez, who was hitting .281 for West Michigan, remains in the Midwest League after getting assigned by the Astros to Quad Cities.
"I'm in shock," Vasquez said after learning about the trade. "It's hard for me to leave my team. I'm grateful for the Tigers to give me the opportunity to play baseball. Now, I'm an Astro. I'm super happy they think enough of me to trust me and trade a big league guy for me."
Rattlers rally: The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers bit Burlington for five runs in the bottom of the ninth inning for a stunning 6-5 victory Sunday. Garrett Cooper capped the comeback with a two-out, two-run triple, just the second walk-off triple in franchise history (Michael Marseco, April 22, 2010, against Peoria).
Grand comeback: Beau Amaral's grand slam highlighted a six-run eighth inning that lifted Dayton to an 8-5 victory against Fort Wayne on Sunday. Amaral's slam is the fourth by the Dragons in the month of July.