Frank Viola's two seasons of Minor League Baseball were unremarkable. His road back to affiliated ball has been anything but.
Nearly nine years after his professional debut and seven years since his last appearance in a Minor League game, reinvented knuckleballer Viola allowed three hits over four scoreless innings as Class A Lansing routed Great Lakes, 9-1, on Monday.
"It was exciting to get back out here," the Blue Jays' Minor Leaguer said. "I was a little nervous, like always. I'm glad I was nervous because that means I care. It was just exciting because all the hard work paid off. You go through a lot of things in life, and sometimes you just don't feel worth it, because it was handed to you. This wasn't handed to me. It was a lot of hard work and dedication. A lot of people supported me."
Originally a 29th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2004, Viola III, son of the 15-year big leaguer of the same name, debuted in 2005 and last pitched in a Minor League game with the Rookie-level Bristol Sox on Aug. 29, 2007. In one inning that day, the righty allowed two runs on three hits and seemingly to close the door on his career, never having returned to an affiliated mound. Until Monday.
In 2012, Viola connected with Toronto pitcher R.A. Dickey, who began mentoring the righty through the process of developing a knuckleball. After extended work with Dickey and former Boston star Tim Wakefield, Viola earned a contract with the Blue Jays and reported to camp this year. What this week's trip north to Michigan lost in temperature, it made up for in a chance at redemption.
Viola employed his new weapon to confound Great Lakes hitters.
The native of St. Paul, Minnesota set down the Loons in order in the first, but loaded the bases in the second and fourth innings. He also put men at the corners in the third, but worked his way out of trouble each time.
"I had a good knuckleball tonight," said Viola, who struck out four and walked four. "It was on. I think I only threw two or three knuckleballs that I didn't think were real good. I was missing bats. Nobody was hitting the ball hard. They were taking bad swings at it, so I knew it was on. I think the thing I can build on that is I've got to trust it a little bit more. I'm still growing with it."
Viola was pleased with his performance and ability to execute a notoriously fickle pitch on such an emotional night.
"That's the key with the knuckleball as you grow with it," he said. "The whole premise behind it is body control and repetition and consistency. It's about letting go of the fact that I don't have anything overwhelming. I know that going in because that's why I'm throwing this pitch. If I can keep my mind calm, I can keep everything else calm and be thankful to be out there. That's it. Just try to have fun with it and let it go and see what happens."
With an ability to continually pitch out of trouble, Viola kept the Lugnuts in a scoreless game early. Lansing got on the board with a four-run fifth inning, highlighted by No. 5 Blue Jays prospect D.J. Davis' two-run double. Chaz Frank smacked a bases-clearing double in the sixth and the Lugnuts cruised from there..
The 29-year-old, with just 24 Minor League games under his belt entering Monday felt right at home with his new teammates.
"I get called 'Old Man' a lot," Viola chuckled. "It's great. It keeps you young. You see these kids, they're hungry, they want to make it real bad, and they work hard. They're excited to be out here. That's fun for me, because it brings back when I was that age. I have those memories from when I was that age, and it was the best time of my life. I didn't take advantage of it. I didn't work hard, so I've got a lot of knowledge to give to them because it can be taken away from you at any time."
Yeyfry Del Rosario (1-1) allowing one run on three hits over three innings for the win.
The Lugnuts got some additional good news during Monday night's game when it was announced the Lansing City Council voted to approve a plan for a modernization project at Cooley Law School Stadium. According to the team, most stadium renovation work will be completed during the upcoming offseason with a residential and commercial development project slated to be ready by Opening Day 2016.