"Piggy-backing" is an occasional practice employed by Major League organizations with a plethora of pitching at the lower levels of the Minor Leagues. The rationale centers on creating an easier adjustment for young hurlers making the jump to the full-season ranks by having two pitchers share one spot in the rotation. One will start and pitch approximately half the game before the other relieves and twirls the second half. Their roles are exchanged the next time in order to give both a feel for pre-game preparations.
Oftentimes the situation is short-lived. Injuries to other members of the rotation create full-time openings for the remaining starters. On other occasions, one member of the piggy-backing tandem will struggle, leading to a demotion to the short-season ranks by mid-June. Regardless of the scenario, the results of the practice are inconsistent and little more than a temporary fix to a numbers crunch.
One of the more successful results of piggy-backing can be seen in Greensboro with Austin Brice and Jose Urena. The two right-handers opened the 2012 slate as a tag team, had success and were ready to move into full-time roles when Adam Conley and Jose Fernandez were promoted to Class A Advanced Jupiters after making 14 starts apiece.
"It actually worked really well," Brice said. "It wasn't a big deal for me, regardless of whether I was starting or relieving. I kept the same mind-set because I knew I was going to pitch every fifth day. There were no surprises. I didn't feel any different relieving compared to starting. I just went out and pitched."
Brice struggled in his first outings of the season, giving up 11 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings. He rebounded shortly thereafter, including a strong May when he went 3-0 with two saves and a 1.67 ERA split between three starts and three relief outings. The righty moved into the rotation on a full-time basis in mid-June and continued to succeed, going 1-1 with a 3.68 mark in five appearances that month.
Many players hit a wall either mentally or physically during their first full professional season. Brice is no exception, although his difficulties stem from a bout with the flu that lingered for more than two weeks in July. Even though he was able to post a respectable 2-1 record with a 3.81 ERA in his first six starts of the month, Brice lost 10 pounds due a sore throat that made eating difficult.
"It's definitely been a big learning experience with this being my first full season," Brice said. "It's a lot different than Rookie ball. You're traveling and staying in hotels. I'm just treating it as a time to learn as much as I can about how professional baseball is supposed to be played. I've been battling this stupid sickness, but other than that things have been going well."
A native of Pittsboro, N.C., Brice signed a national letter-of-intent with Appalachian State prior to coming to terms with the Marlins as a ninth-round Draft pick in 2010. He pitched in the Gulf Coast League in each of his first two seasons of pro ball, compiling a 6-0 record with a 2.96 ERA in 11 games and nine starts in 2011. He showed a plus fastball that touches 96 mph as well as tremendous promise with both his changeup and curveball.
"Right now my secondary pitches have been really good," said Brice, who turned 20 on June 19. "For me, the big thing is my fastball, locating it and keeping it down at the knees and staying on top of it. When my fastball is working and going where I want it to go, it seems like the rest of my pitches are, too."
Brice is currently tied for fifth in the South Atlantic League with 99 strikeouts and has allowed only 75 hits in 83 1/3 innings. Control has been his biggest challenge -- he's walked52 batters. At the same time, Brice has learned how to minimize the damage of the free passes, resulting in an overall record of 7-3 with a 4.10 ERA and three saves in 19 appearances.
"At the beginning of the year, numbers were an important thing to me," Brice said. "Since then that has really started tapering off. I just want to be successful on the mound. If a game doesn't go as well as I want it to go, as long as I'm developing my pitches and working on something, that's alright. I've had a game or two where I pitched really well but the hitters were seeing the ball. I've started to realize that I simply need to get better before I start to worry about putting up All-Star numbers. The more you force that to happen, the quicker you'll go downhill."
Kvasnicka white hot: Lexington's Mike Kvasnicka continued his torrid ways at the plate on July 23, the same day it was announced that he was the SAL Player of the Week after going 10-for-26 with four homers and 15 RBIs. The Astros' first-round Draft pick from 2010 homered and drove in three runs in the Legends' 6-2 victory over Augusta, giving Kvasnicka three round-trippers in two games and five in his last seven outings. He drove in seven runs with a grand slam and a three-run homer on July 22.
Crazy contest: In perhaps the wildest game of the SAL season thus far, Kannapolis scored 11 runs in the third inning yet lost the contest, 14-13, to Charleston at CMC-NorthEast Stadium on July 22. Both teams overcame deficits of at least five runs in the game, and 17 of the 18 batters in the starting lineup scored at least one run. The deciding tallies came in the top of the eighth when Charleston's Francisco Arcia broke a 12-12 tie with a two-run double.
Lowell on a roll: Greensboro's Charlie Lowell tossed seven no-hit innings on July 21 to lead the Grasshoppers to a 3-1 victory at Asheville. Lowell, who gave up one hit in seven innings in his previous outing, struck out nine Tourists batters, walked one and hit one prior to reaching his pitch count in the seventh frame. In his last 14 innings, the left-hander has allowed one hit and one walk while striking out 23.