Drew Hayes' dominant season didn't end the way he wanted it to, but, as they say in baseball, a good closer needs to have a short memory.
Hayes, a Reds prospect out of Vanderbilt, finished a solid season with Class A Dayton with 22 saves and a 1.35 ERA over 51 regular season outings in the Midwest League, good enough to earn the MiLBY Award as Class A Full Season Reliever of the Year.
He struck out 89 batters in 60 innings, allowed just two longballs and held batters to a .141 average.
Those numbers make his final pitch all the more remarkable. In what would be his final appearance of the season, Hayes came on to pitch the ninth inning and protect the Dragons' 2-1 lead in Game 2 of the Midwest League's semifinals playoff series at Lansing on Sept. 9. A leadoff single and a strikeout brought up third baseman Matt Nuzzo, who launched a walk-off two-run homer down the line in right (Lansing went on to win the series in Game 3). It was the No. 8 hitter's fifth homer of 2011.
And, though that will remain in Hayes' mind for a while this winter, it shouldn't take away from the progress he made in his first full season of professional baseball. Hayes, Bowling Green's Chris Rearick and Delmarva's David Walters were the only Class A pitchers to record more than 20 saves in 2011.
Hayes' 22 saves, in fact, led all Reds Minor Leaguers, and his ERA, had he qualified with enough innings, would have led the system as well.
"I think Drew's numbers speak for themselves," said Jeff Graupe of the Reds' player development department.
"He showed a plus fastball, a plus slider and he was great in late inning situations."
The McKenzie, Tenn., native was the Reds' 11th-round pick in the 2010 Draft after three seasons with Vandy -- he went 6-0 with a 3.91 ERA in 24 outings in his final college season. He was drafted twice previously, in the 29th round by Arizona in 2006 and in the 22nd round by Seattle in '09, but he opted not to sign both times. A successful stint with Yarmouth-Dennis in the Cape Cod League, an elite college summer circuit, helped further raise his Draft stock in 2009.
That all came after the 6-foot-1 right-hander authored one of the best high school football careers in Tennessee history. Aside from playing baseball and basketball at McKenzie High School, Hayes became the starting varsity quarterback as a freshman and went on to throw for over 9,000 passing yards, the second-most in the history of Tennessee high school football.
He stuck with baseball and debuted in 2010 with short-season Billings, where he went 1-3 with a 2.42 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings, earning a promotion this spring to Dayton.
The righty got a handful of save opportunities in late April but didn't fully assume the closer's role until June. He converted 14 straight save opportunities from April 21-July 9 and picked up his first win July 14.
Hayes' only blown save of the regular season came on July 15, when he allowed a longball in a loss to Quad Cities. He went on nail down eight more saves following the loss, earning another win on Aug. 30.
"He took over the closer job for that team, and between him and Blaine Howell and Daniel Wolford, they had power arms that allowed them to shorten games," Graupe said.
Hayes was especially stingy at home, owning a 0.55 ERA in 32 2/3 innings over 27 outings at Fifth Third Field.
The 24-year-old's best month was June, when he struck out 22 batters, allowed only two hits and held opponents scoreless in 11 appearances.
What does 2012 hold? The Class A Advanced California League is a notorious hitter-friendly circuit, so whether the Reds send Hayes to Bakersfield or Double-A Pensacola, he'll have plenty more opportunities to put the end of 2011 into history.