Akron left-hander Matt Packer was picked for the Eastern League All-Star Game and became the first pitcher in the circuit to reach 10 wins, but the former University of Virginia standout says his best achievement this year has been his ability to take the ball on a regular basis.
"That was my main goal. I needed to have a full season," said Packer, a 32nd-round pick by the Indians in 2009.
Packer missed the first part of last year recovering from a rotator cuff strain, which did not require surgery. He made 12 starts in 2012 for four different Cleveland affiliates, including three for Akron and six for Triple-A Columbus.
This season he is 10-8 for Akron with a 3.52 ERA in 25 games, including a team-high 22 starts. He ranks fourth in the league with 135 2/3 innings pitched, recording 107 strikeouts while only walking 38.
"I feel pretty good about my year right now," Packer said. "I got off to a slow start. I wasn't pitching badly, but not getting a lot of breaks."
He was 0-3 with a 4.07 ERA in five starts in April but then went then went 2-2, 2.70 over six games in May. That led to a dominant June during which Packer was 4-0, 1.19 in five appearances (four starts) to solidify his All-Star status. He did not pitch in the Eastern League All-Star Game since he had thrown for Akron just a few days earlier.
"He's had a successful season," said Akron pitching coach Greg Hibbard. "With the slow start, he really had a strong middle of the season. He's working through some kinks with his delivery. He's more of a finesse guy. As an organization we've talked about putting him in the bullpen to help us at the big league level."
"Matt has been outstanding this year. He's been durable, kept the ball down and in the ballpark and continues to improve his overall ability to get good hitters out," noted Ross Atkins, Cleveland vice president of player development, by email on Monday. "He's [Major League] depth for us now, and we expect him to be more than depth for us in the future."
He was 4-1 with a 2.83 ERA in six starts in July for the Aeros, who began a series at Erie on Monday. Packer's last appearance came Friday at home against Reading as he pitched two innings out of the bullpen and gave up one run.
Packer was slated to start but Josh Tomlin made a rehab start for the Aeros, who won 3-2 as first baseman Jesus Aguilar hit a three-run homer. Hibbard said Packer will slot back into the rotation for his next outing.
Packer throws a curve, slider and change while his fastball tops out in the low 90s. He said this season he has thrown about 60 percent fastballs and 40 percent secondary pitches.
"I definitely pitch to contact," said Packer, who is about two semesters shy of a History degree from Virginia.
Though Akron is not far from Cleveland, and front-office personnel of the Indians are able to see the Aeros regularly, Packer does not let that control his approach to the game.
"It only puts thoughts in your head" to worry about moving up the ladder, he said.
Packer began his pro career in the New York-Penn League in 2009 and advanced to Akron the next season. In 2011 he led the Cleveland system with 169 1/3 innings pitched and was tied for second in the Eastern League with 27 starts. Last year he was 2-1 with a 2.41 ERA in three starts for the Aeroes and 1-4 with a 5.50 ERA in six starts for Columbus in his only stint at the Triple-A level.
The Wright stuff: Bowie right-hander Mike Wright pitched seven scoreless innings as the Baysox won, 11-0, over visiting Richmond on Sunday. "I've faced Richmond a lot, so I felt like I had a pretty good approach going in," said Wright. "I had really good fastball command today. Me and [catcher Brian] Ward were really on the same page. When I wanted to throw a slider or changeup, that's what he called. It's really easy to work off your fastball when you have it like it was today." Wright improved to 11-2 and lowered his ERA to 3.19.
Down to the wire: It appears the race for two playoff spots could go down to the last weekend in the Western Division. There were just three games separating the top four teams through Sunday. Erie (67-59) was in first, followed by Harrisburg (67-60), Richmond (65-62) and Bowie (64-62). The Senators have the best road record in the division at 35-28 and end the season with a series at Richmond. The Baysox, who, like Richmond, had won seven of 10 through Sunday, are at Erie in the last series of the season.
Not so close: Binghamton has clinched a playoff spot and would need a 1964 Phillies-style collapse to not win the Eastern Division. The B-Mets were 79-48 through Sunday, 13 ½ games ahead of second-place Trenton. Binghamton was slowed down with a 5-3 loss at home Sunday to New Britain, despite Allan Dykstra driving in his team-high 76th RBI.