When the 2012 Opening Day rosters were released this past April, the Stockton Ports' pitching staff looked poised to defy the Cal League trend and dominate offenses. Headlining the rotation was the recently acquired A.J. Cole, who was brought into the organization in the Gio Gonzalez trade. Along with other notable names such as Blake Treinen and Ian Krol, the Ports' rotation had a similar feel to the 2008 championship squad, which featured fielded Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Henry Rodriguez, Fautino De Los Santos and Graham Godfrey as its Opening Day rotation.
However, the California League has taken its toll on the 2012 staff. Cole struggled early and was eventually sent to Low-A Burlington, Treinen and Blake Hassebrock missed significant time with injuries and Krol battled rust and inconsistency before being moved into the bullpen (and eventually promoted to Double-A) as he approached his innings limit for the season.
One constant in the Ports' rotation this season has been right-hander Josh Bowman, a 2010 10th round selection from the University of Tampa. Over the past few months, he has assumed the "ace" role in Stockton, in large parts thanks to the addition of a new pitch. Bowman, who began his stretch of dominance immediately after the Cal League's All-Star break, may very well be a viable candidate to follow in 2011 Port Dan Straily's footsteps as the next breakout sensation in the A's system.
Bowman began his career in southern Florida out of St. Petersburg and attended Northeast HS, where his senior season would culminate in third-team all-state honors for the polished Floridian. He decided to remain local, matriculating at the University of Tampa, a NCAA Division II program. The righty made a significant impression as a freshman, tying the team lead for starts (15) while striking out 71 in 72.1 innings pitched in a campaign that included a no-hitter in which he fanned 11. His sophomore season would see a slight statistical slump, with Bowman only throwing 43.2 innings. He split that season between starting and relieving roles while compiling a meager 1.64 K/BB. However, Bowman recovered with a standout junior campaign, easily leading his team in innings pitched with 85. Bowman put together a 4.05 K/BB for the Spartans by punching out an even 85 or an exact 9.00 K/9. The performance caught the attention of the A's, who selected Bowman with the 305th overall pick in 2010.
Bowman signed early enough to make 15 appearances in 2010, all in relief between the AZL and short-season Vancouver. As a reliever, Bowman clocked in 22.2 innings while striking out 25. In 2011, Bowman would spend the entire season with the Low-A Burlington Bees. Bowman proved to be a workhorse for Burlington, as he amassed 154.2 innings in 28 outings. Despite a minimal amount of strikeouts (5.70 K/9), the St. Pete native's calling card was his consistency with preventing walks and homers.
In 2012, Bowman earned a promotion to High-A Stockton. He put together a relatively successful first half for the Ports, with 70.1 innings and a 53/23 K/BB ratio while surrendering only five homers. After the break, Bowman saw a sudden spike in his production that was highlighted by a dominant 11 strikeout performance in Bakersfield, a performance that would earn him the California League pitcher of the week.
"That was a night I felt like everything was working," Bowman said.
"The curveball was money, I felt like I could throw it anywhere I wanted to. And Bakersfield is a pretty good hitting team, but I felt like they were getting themselves out a little bit by being too aggressive too early in the count and letting me get ahead. But I've got to give props to them because they're a quality team especially when they've got Billy Hamilton running all over the place."
In the second half, Bowman has put together eye-popping stats in his nine starts, with a 6.33 K/BB in 56.1 innings with 57 strikeouts, becoming the first Port to 100 innings and 100 strikeouts. Bowman credits his recent surge to a better approach versus lefties.
"I think a great addition to my stuff this season is my cutter," Bowman said.
"I think what I struggled to do earlier in the year against lefties was getting in on their hands. I feel like I could always go away from them with my sinker, but I couldn't really get in on them so they'd just sit on that outside pitch. So I think that's been crucial these past 10 outings or so to help with that development and stuff. Other than that, just to keep executing pitches down in the zone and that's when it gets fun."
Coupled with improved command, Bowman has also seen an increase in the number of groundballs he has induced from his previous season in Burlington and the first half of 2012. Bowman says an aggressive mindset has helped him.
"I've definitely got to give a lot of credit to Lefty [Craig Lefferts], our pitching coach," Bowman said. "He's really been helping me to create an attitude of always being relentless and not settling for mediocrity but going out and giving it all I've got every time and not leaving anything in the tank. More so, just going out there and not being passive, just always being on the offensive.
"I was just really tired of going out there and being shellacked there in the first couple starts… I think it has a lot to do with going out there and enjoying the games. Almost savoring each pitch and not going out there and thinking too much about ‘Is my arm doing this?' or ‘Is my body moving this way?', but more so just going and enjoying the game while having fun with it. Just worrying about the mechanics and those aspects in the bullpens and side sessions."
Bowman has a simple goal for the remainder of his 2012 campaign.
"Just go out there, enjoy each start, and give my team a chance to win," Bowman said.
With Bowman's recent surge, one could draw comparisons to Straily and his 2011 Stockton season, as both put together strikingly similar post-All-Star break resumes. After their first nine starts following the break, Bowman and Straily both had nearly identical innings pitched (Bowman: 56.1/ Straily 56), K/BB (Bowman: 6.33/ Straily: 6.00), K/9 (Bowman: 9.10/Straily: 9.64) and BB/9 (Bowman: 1.43/ Straily: 1.60).
"If there was going to be another Straily, I think it could be Josh Bowman," Ports' radio broadcaster Zack Bayrouty said.
"And I say that for a couple of different reasons. One, he's got the numbers, you know, the real good numbers. And I said this about Straily, anytime you have a sub-4.00 ERA in the California League, it's really good.
"I think Josh and Dan went through a lot of the same trials and tribulations with having their struggles throughout the course of a long season and finding ways to overcome them, finding ways to get better and flat-out having that work ethic. In that way I think Josh and Dan are really similar having gone through some rough patches and come out better for it."