OKLAHOMA CITY -- When the idea of a Triple-A title game was first broached, one of the concerns that was voiced -- as it had been in the past when such a get-together was planned -- was about how extending the Minor League season for another day, hour or minute would impact the parent clubs when it came time to promote players for the September stretch run.
Well, Tuesday's Bricktown Showdown did have an impact but not in the way originally feared by the teams on the Major League level. It's International League champion Toledo with a pared down roster when it faces Tucson for the title of Triple-A champion. Eulogio De La Cruz, 22, will get the start for the Mud Hens, not so much based on merit but on attrition.
The Mud Hens lost a pair of starters in one swoop when Detroit promoted starter Chad Durbin after Saturday's victory over Rochester. So, the logical choice to start against the Sidewinders became Colby Lewis. But to make room for Durbin on the 40-man roster, Lewis had to be designated for assignment, leaving him ineligible to pitch Tuesday night.
"We hadn't really decided on who we were going with, but we were talking before that last game against Rochester, and it was either going to be Lewis or De La Cruz," Toledo pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "There are a lot of things to like about him [De La Cruz]. He's got a very good arm, and he's made a lot of progress. I remember seeing him in the Instructional League three years ago, and he had trouble throwing strikes. But he's worked on a few things, and he calmed down.
"When he's right, he has three quality pitches. He understands what we're trying to do, and he's a good kid. There are a lot of little things we've been working on like keeping his head on the target longer. He has a tendency to pull his head off. And from the stretch, he can be a little open, looking at the guy on first base. We're trying to get him to stay closed."
Cruz, who signed as an un-drafted free agent in 2001, spent the entire regular season, save one outing, with Erie of the Double-A Eastern League. He was 5-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 38 games (12 starts), but Columbus hit him hard in his only Triple-A start after getting promoted.
Still, it would appear as if his future is in the rotation. Jones said that everyone to whom he's spoken to in the organization about De La Cruz speaks of him as a starter. During the playoffs, as well as at Erie, he's shown glimpses of what he can do in that role. He was 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA as a starter at Erie, striking out 54 in 56 innings.
"At this point, that's the plan and we'll go from there," Jones said.
Though Columbus tuned him up in 2 1/3 innings -- he allowed three runs on four hits -- he rebounded with a marvelous outing against Charlotte in the opening playoff round. He scattered six hits and allowed two runs in seven innings against the Knights, striking out 11.
"He had a great game against Charlotte," Jones said. "He could have beaten a big-league team that day. I thought in his first outing against Columbus he was a little nerous. And then he mentioned to me a couple of days afterwards that he was nervous and said he'd be better his next time out. And that next time out was Charlotte."
But, De La Cruz, a native of the Dominican Republic, couldn't solve Rochester in the finals. He lasted only four innings, surrendering five runs on eight hits.
Now, however, he'll get his chance on perhaps the biggest stage on which he's ever pitched. The game is being televised nationally and whether he's making the start because of attrition or not, it's an opportunity for him to show the folks in Detroit that they have yet another promising young arm on the farm.
"He doesn't seem intimidated about moving up in class," Jones said. "He threw the ball well that game against Charlotte. He's a good kid."