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In Case of Emergency

May 31, 2012
The list may not be long, but they mean a lot to Craig Albernaz.

"You better believe I keep a list," the Bulls catcher said with a wicked grin. "I remember every single one."

Chattanooga outfielders Kyle Russell and Elian Herrera are on it. So is Gwinnett second baseman Dan Nelson. Gwinnett catcher J.C. Boscan had his name added in April. The four players are seasoned pros who have combined for five games in the Major Leagues and 159 minor league home runs. And Albernaz has fanned each of them.

Albernaz is the emergency pitcher for the Durham Bulls.

Seven times in his career, he's taken the mound to close out a blowout, allowing the team to save wear and tear on the bullpen in a game that got out of hand long ago.

He's faced a total of 40 batters. Albernaz walked two of them and gave up hits to 12. The remaining 26 went back to the dugout, frustrated that they couldn't get a hit off the catcher, and four of them made it onto Albernaz's list.

Herrera and Russell looked at strike three. Nelson and Boscan swung and missed. Boscan suffered the ultimate indignity of striking out on three pitches.

Albernaz makes sure to follow up with each person on his list whenever possible.

"I'll find them the next day and make sure they hear about it," he said. "Not just the guys that struck out, either. I'll let guys have it for taking a pitch against me. 'What are you doing taking a pitch? Come on, man!'"

By the time things have gotten to the point where Albernaz is called on to pitch, there's not a lot of strategy. "Craig Albernaz On Pitching" would be a very short how-to manual.

"Just straight fastballs," Albernaz said. "That's it. That's all I throw."

No need to shake off the catcher, then?

"Nah," he shrugged. "I mean, I still do, just as a joke. Nevin (Ashley) is usually my catcher, so we're just out there laughing about it."

Albernaz has always had a live arm.

"He grew up pitching in summer ball," said reliever Brandon Gomes, who played with Albernaz in American Legion ball. "Albie just goes out there and throws as hard or harder than half the guys on the staff."

Albernaz became a full time catcher at Eckerd College and "goofed around" with pitching on the side in college and his first few years in the pros.

Behind the plate, he quickly established his cannon-arm in the low minor leagues. He gunned down nearly 50% of runners attempting to steal in 2007 and topped 50% in 2008. This year, he's thrown out four of 13 base-stealers for a 44.4% success rate. The rest of the team's catchers have thrown out just 12%.

He's also established himself as the king of the snap-throw. He's fired the ball to first on post-pitch pickoff attempts 15 times this season, usually not bothering to get out of his crouch to do so. The rest of the Bulls catchers have done it just three times.

Clearly, if the team needed a position player to eat an inning on the mound, Albernaz was a prime candidate. But there was no selection process or spring-training tryout. Instead, it was just a spur-of-the-moment call.

"It was here in Durham in 2009," Albernaz said of his first time getting the call to the bullpen. "We were getting beat up pretty bad, and our pitching coach at the time, Xavier Hernandez knew I had a good arm. He asked me if I could pitch and I said, 'Sure, let's go.'"

A few practice pitches in the bullpen later, Albernaz took the hill and did the job. "Three up, three down, I threw a lot of strikes. Ever since then, Charlie (Montoyo) knew I could throw."

His ability to get ready in a hurry is one of the reasons Albernaz has been manager Charlie Montoyo's go-to guy in those situations.

"Obviously, the earlier in the game he tells me, the better," Albernaz said, "but sometimes it'll be the eighth inning, and they'll say they need me to pitch the ninth. Okay." In fact, on a few appearances last year, Albernaz was busy catching when Montoyo asked him to pitch. "That was interesting," Albernaz said, shaking his head at the memory. "I actually hit a double in one of those games to give us the lead in the sixth inning. Then, next thing you know, they brought in a guy, and he got hit around. All of a sudden, they need me."

"The last time he pitched, it was in Gwinnett (in April). It was about 40 degrees, and he goes out there, and he's throwing 89, 90, 91 miles an hour with about five warm-up pitches," Gomes said. "I'm a little jealous. He's got great life on his ball, and he's got an idea what he's doing. It's just fun to watch."

Albernaz says that the fastest he's seen is 91. He knows because he looked over his shoulder to take a peek at the radar gun reading, displayed for fans in every stadium. "This year, in Gwinnett, I came in, and after the first pitch, I took a look," he admitted. "After that, I knew, so I was like, 'whatever'."

He could probably go a little higher if he wanted to, but he holds back. "I don't throw as hard as I can," Albernaz said. "I could definitely throw harder. There's a limit. I pitch at a speed where I know I can throw strikes, and it's always in the back of my mind: I don't want to really blow it out and hurt myself."

As impressive as it might be for a catcher to toss aside the chest protector and hit the low 90s on the radar gun, it's not a tough task for a hitter at this level to catch up to a 91 mph fastball, especially when he knows what's coming. "I absolutely could hit myself," Albernaz said. "It's just a fastball."

So there must be another list, then, of hitters who have taken him deep?

"I've only given up one home run," Albernaz said proudly. The history books disagree. There was Terry Sands, in 2010, Shawn Bowman and Diory Hernandez last April, and Ryan Adams, Nick Green, and John Hester in July.

"Wait. That's right," Albernaz said. "I lied to you just then. I forgot about all those guys with Gwinnett and Norfolk last year."

With a 7.88 career ERA, a career change probably isn't in the cards for Albernaz. Still, he has one more goal on the mound.

He's pitched in a winning game, taking the hill with a 9-1 lead in 2010 with the Montgomery Biscuits and surviving a home run, double, and walk to finish off the win. "Nevin came out to the mound and reminded me, 'We're winning this game. Don't mess it up,'" Albernaz said.

What Albernaz hasn't had the chance to do is come in with the game on the line. In early May, a 17-inning marathon between Baltimore and Boston saw both teams run out of pitchers. Orioles first baseman Chris Davis got the win over Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald.

"I'd love the chance to do that," Albernaz said. "Sure. I mean, I'm a competitor."