Family, baseball help Astros' Devenski thrive

With love and drive, Houston hurler emerged from tough environment

Chris Devenski posted a 3.01 ERA with 104 strikeouts in 24 games with Corpus Christi last year. (Shane Roper/MiLB.com)

By Kelsie Heneghan / MiLB.com | January 21, 2016 10:00 AM

In 1996, a dog almost defeated a dragon.

At age 5 -- many years before he earned the nickname "Dragon'' -- Chris Devenski was playing with older kids. The others knew the eventual Astros pitcher had an affinity for chasing baseballs, so they would throw a ball and Devenski would run after it. One day, the ball rolled past an open fence where a dog was sitting.

Just three years after Smalls and the gang tried to get a ball back from "The Beast" in The Sandlot, young Chris crossed the fence to retrieve his. This dog turned out to be less friendly than the movie hound and almost took off Chris' ear. 

But even after 25 stitches, the California native continued to crave baseball, and it ironically became his safe haven.

Growing up in Santa Ana, California -- a mostly Hispanic working-class city in Orange County -- Devenski had his share of obstacles to overcome.

"I had to fight to survive where I was at. I was getting into fights all the time when I was a kid. Imagine being the only white kid in the neighborhood," he said. "Being a boy, you're always outside doing things. I was athletic and I was always -- not getting into trouble, but… It was a very competitive neighborhood I came from -- we had a lot of athletes. We were always trying to prove ourselves."

As Devenski got older, he learned that playground tiffs over street football were just the beginning of a difficult journey.

"There was a lot of drug activity, gang violence coming from that area, and I witnessed that a lot when I was a kid. I had a lot of friends who went down the wrong path," he said. "I felt like I was being consumed by that environment, it was calling my name every day, 'Come do this, come do that.'

"But baseball was there for me."

Devenski saw the sport as an outlet to overcome adversity and the Majors as a dream destination. His father agreed.


"My whole world was crushed at that time. Everything changed, but I still had baseball."
 
-- Chris Devenski

Mike Devenski made sure there were toy baseballs in his son's crib, and it wasn't long before Chris insisted his junior mitt was always by his side. Mike grew up in the same area and believed baseball was his son's ticket to thriving in a tough environment.

"It wasn't as bad as you think it was, but it was a little rough. It was a rough part in the Santa Ana area. But [baseball] kept him motivated; it distracted him," the father said. "The reality was you had to do something to keep your mind occupied so you could go out and obtain something."

After working a full-time job during the day at his moving company, Mike would come home and work with his son, pitching pinto beans and hitting ground balls until late at night.

"My Dad was the No. 1 inspiration in my life because he would push me to overcome the obstacles," the Astros' No. 16 prospect said. "He really pushed me to where I now know how to push myself. Sometimes I would be like, 'Why is he doing this? Why is he pushing so hard on me?' But now I understand why."

Some days they would be in dad's office instead of his son's cage. Sometimes Chris would ride in moving vans, and rather than lifting sinking fastballs, he would lift boxes with his father. Traveling across the state, the right-hander learned about hard work and getting his hands dirty.

After high school, Chris Devenski went to Golden West College in Huntington Beach. Before his first season as the Rustlers' shortstop, the Golden State native went to New York with his dad. It was the first time the younger Devenski left home and Chris cherished the time they spent moving furniture in New York, then driving back to California.

As Chris reflected on his time in college, the happy memories could have been overtaken by tragic ones, like when he was part of a bad car crash on California's 91 Freeway.

"I totaled my truck; I flipped it; I was upside down," he said. "My whole world was crushed at that time. Everything changed, but I still had baseball."

Back on the field, Devenski continued to grow. Following two years at Golden West, he transferred to Cal State Fullerton. After getting to sit in the team's dugout as a kid and in the stands as a teenager, Devenski finally got to be on the field as a student-athlete.

"I feel like I've always had a chip on my shoulder. I've always had to prove people wrong that told me I can't do things, but when I went to Fullerton, it was new," he said. "I wanted to see what it was all about. I went there to play short, but I developed into a pitcher.

"I wouldn't say I had the best year at Fullerton at the time -- I kind of struggled there and getting accustomed to Division I baseball. It was a stepping stone."

After a season as a reliever, Devenski was selected in the 25th round of the 2011 Draft by the Chicago White Sox. Thought he was picked later than he expected, the 6-foot-3 hurler quickly signed up for his next challenge: professional baseball. Just 14 months later, though, he'd be calling a new organization home -- the White Sox had traded Devenski, Matt Heidenreich and Blair Walters to the Astros for Major Leaguer Brett Myers and cash on Aug. 2, 2012.

Devenski had a tough time transitioning to a new South Atlantic League team, but he finished the season strong and even had a 16-strikeout no-hitter for Class A Lexington.

The following season was not as smooth. Devenski began the 2013 campaign with Class A Advanced Lancaster, where then-JetHawks skipper Rodney Linares got his first glimpse of "Devo." But after a 7.88 ERA in 21 outings, the right-hander was sent down to Class A Quad Cities.

"[I] struggled trying to find out and learn things about myself, and I had failure. But failure brings success. That was another big obstacle and I had to climb that mountain, too," the 25-year-old said. "I was in the dumps, I was in dark times, but I didn't quit -- I didn't quit. I kept fighting and kept trying to give my best every day."

In 2014, Devenski returned to Linares and Lancaster. Fueled by the "burning" in his stomach from a tough season, the California native took to the cages and the field to get things back on track once again. Devenski stuck with the work ethic he learned in moving vans, earning a promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi.

"Probably the hardest worker I've ever had as a pitcher -- he works extremely hard and he's finally achieving his goals," Linares said. "He's never been regarded as a high prospect, but he just goes out there and tries to find a way to beat you."

In 2015, Linares and Devenski were reunited once again in Corpus Christi. Two years after their first meeting, the skipper noticed a lot of growth from his pitcher. Devenski was more religious -- something Linares thought made the prospect into a better man -- he was more put together in the way he dressed and he became "really complimentary to his teammates."

The improvements were evident on the field as well. Devenski posted a 3.01 ERA with 104 strikeouts and 33 walks in 119 2/3 innings spanning 24 outings. The strong season was highlighted by pitching five innings in a combined no-hitter May 29. With help from pitching coach Doug Brocail, Devenski became the Hooks' Pitcher of the Year.

"He's always had a 'Bugs Bunny changeup' -- that really good changeup, but his command was sporadic," Linares said. "When you're not a guy who's throwing 100 mph, 95-plus, you can get hurt if you start elevating and all that. But I think the biggest change for him has been his fastball command and his willingness to use his breaking ball for strikes and also commanding it."

After a successful season, Corpus Christi made it to the Texas League playoffs, and in Game 1 against Midland, Linares knew there was only one name to put on the lineup card next to starting pitcher.

"[Devenski's] nickname is the Dragon, we call him the Dragon," Houston's No. 10 prospect Tony Kemp said in September. "We call him that nickname because every time he goes out there, he's fearless and he believes in himself. And when you have a pitcher like that, that has a beast in him like that, all you have to do is just play easy defense."

With dad in the crowd, along with his mom, Shirley Johnson, the Dragon was unleashed, striking out a season-high nine en route to the win.

As the right-hander walked off the mound, he couldn't help but look up at his father.

"He had this look on him that he was just completely proud of me and happy with me for what I've done and everything me and him have been through together," Devenski said. "Him being a mover, there's times where I've helped him move. He saved me from those obstacles too. [The look] was something very, very special to me that will always be inside of me and will always live on, even after he's gone.

"It will be something that I'll always cherish, I'll always look back at that and that can lift me up."

In turn, Mike Devenski has similar feelings about watching his son play in Double-A and at the next level. On Sept. 16, Chris Devenski was promoted to Triple-A, where he made two scoreless relief appearances for Fresno in the Pacific Coast League Finals.

When Dan Straily was a last-minute callup to the Astros, Devenski got the ball one final time in the Triple-A National Championship. In El Paso, Texas, the kid from Santa Ana carried a perfect game into the sixth inning and eventually hoisted the Minors' biggest trophy as the MVP of Fresno's victory.

"It was a fun ride, but I remember those obstacles I had to overcome," he said. "But I had baseball. I had baseball and I was able to develop it, develop my skills and keep climbing the ladder to where I want to go.

"I'm not there yet, but I'm gonna keep working towards it."

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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