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Billo rebounds with dominant season

Royals prospect earns MiLBY with Midwest-leading 1.90 ERA
October 26, 2011
Greg Billo's 2011 season as a member of the Kane County Cougars can be summed up in four simple words: local boy makes good.

The 21-year-old native of Orland Park, Ill. grew up less than an hour away from Elfstrom Stadium, occasionally attending Cougars games and even got the chance to pitch there as part of a high school tournament. He returned to Kane County in a professional context this past season, posting a 9-5 record and compiling a Midwest League-leading 1.90 ERA over 135 innings. As a result of this sustained stretch of dominance, Billo has earned the MiLBY Award for Class A Starting Pitcher of the Year.

Josh Smith, Dayton

Josh Smith appealed to the fans on the strength of a superb season in the Midwest League. The anchor of the Dayton Dragons rotation led the league with 14 wins and 166 strikeouts and finished third with a 1.09 WHIP in 26 appearances. Smith was named to the circuit's All-Star Game, and on May 21 struck out a career-high 13 batters against Lake County.
"It was cool to come full circle," said Billo of playing for the Cougars. "[Kane County] definitely had the biggest crowds that I've ever played in front of; one game had upwards of 12,000 people. On the mound you don't really notice it, but whenever you get a second to take it all in its pretty cool."

The home state environs may have contributed to Billo's stellar campaign, but such success was hardly preordained. The 28th-round pick was coming off a difficult 2010 season with the Rookie-level Idaho Falls Chukars, where he went 4-8 with an unsightly 5.17 ERA. Billo credits the turnaround to what he describes as "a few mechanical changes and a lot of little tweaks," many of which were made under the tutelage of Cougars pitching coach Jim Brower.

"A big part of [2011's success] was being able to locate the fastball, working it inside and outside," said Billo. "Once you can do that, it opens up the plate for everything else. ... Getting ahead in the count puts me in the best situation; it's hard once you get behind hitters."

Indeed. Despite pitching 57 more innings than he had in 2010, Billo increased his walk total by a mere two (from 23 to 25). He struck out 119, an impressive sum for a pitcher who relies more on finesse than brute strength.

"I'd like to emulate Greg Maddux," said Billo. "He wasn't one of the harder throwers, especially later on in his career, but the way he could toy with a hitter always impressed me."

That said, Billo is working on increasing his velocity as well as going deeper into ballgames. 2011 was a year of incremental growth in this regard, as he began the campaign on a pitch count of "about 45" and slowly worked his way to 100 throughout the course of the season. 18 of Billo's 27 appearances were starts, while the remaining nine were in long relief. Highlights included hurling eight shutout innings against Peoria in May, but Billo says that his most memorable moment occurred in Game 1 of the first round of the Midwest League playoffs. The Cougars were up against the Burlington Bees, a meeting of two teams that had swapped affiliations prior to the season (the Cougars switched to Kansas City as the Bees became an Oakland affiliate).

In what Billo describes as "a real pitcher's duel," he and Bees ace Blake Hassebrock traded zeroes on the scoreboard for the majority of the game. As a fitting exclamation point to what had been a dominant season, Billo pitched seven shutout innings and got the win as the Cougars scored four unanswered runs over their final three at-bats.

But as successful as 2011 may have been, Billo is now focusing on the next step of his professional journey.

"Next year is a big one for me, so I'm doing as much as I can to prepare," he said. "I'll probably start in [Class A Advanced], but I hope to pitch myself up to Double-A midway through. ... I do most of my learning on the mound, and I'm going to take as much as I can out of each game."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog.