Italiano Looking To Finish What He Started

STOCKTON, CA - After two years marred by injuries, right-hander Craig Italiano is finally nearing the 100 inning mark for the first time in his young professional career. Italiano got off to a blistering start this season with Kane County, but he has fallen on some hard times since a mid-year promotion to Stockton. Italiano is working hard to recapture his Kane County form.

Selected in the second round of the 2005 draft out of a Dallas area high school, Craig Italiano came to the Oakland A's armed with a high-90s fastball and seemingly unlimited potential. After striking out 27 in 18.2 innings for the A's Rookie League team in 2005, big things were expected of Italiano in 2006 with the Kane County Cougars.

Italiano got off to a good start with the Cougars, posting a 3.50 ERA and striking out 23 in 18 innings over four starts. Unfortunately, Italiano's 2006 season would end with four starts, as he injured his throwing shoulder in mid-May and had to undergo season-ending surgery on his labrum.

After a long and painful rehabilitation, Italiano returned to Kane County in late April 2007. He got off to a slow start for the Cougars, but on May 14th, things were looking up for Italiano. He had struck-out five in 2.2 innings of shut-out baseball when he was hit on the forehead with a line-drive. The liner fractured his skull and ended his season.

For the second consecutive year, Italiano was forced to endure a long and painful rehab. Where the shoulder rehab was physically painful, the recovery from the head injury was more mentally painful for Italiano because he was forced to sit back idle and wait patiently for his recovery.

"[The shoulder rehab] was painful. Getting back into throwing hurt a lot. It was tough, but it was probably a little bit better than recovering from the head injury because I was able to do rehab and physical activity instead of just sitting there. But it definitely wasn't any fun," Italiano said.

Five months after being struck by the line-drive, Italiano took the big step of pitching against live hitters in game action in the A's October instructional league. He credits current A's rookie sensation Brad Ziegler for helping him get back on the mound. Ziegler was struck in the forehead by a line-drive himself back in 2004 and had to recover from a fractured skull. When Italiano sustained his head injury, Ziegler reached out to the Texas native with some words of encouragement and advice about the recovery.

"It was nice that he called me up. He told me that he had been through the same things that I was going through and he told me to just do what the doctors tell me to do and stick with it," Italiano said.

"To hear that from someone who has been there before was really cool and it's awesome to see where he is at now and that he is doing as well as he is doing. That's pretty neat."

Thanks to the back-to-back season-ending injuries, Italiano began his 2008 season where he started and ended his 2007 and 2006 campaigns: in Low-A Kane County. This time, however, his stay with the Cougars would be far more fruitful. In his second start of the season, Italiano combined with Branden Dewing to throw a seven-inning no-hitter.

That performance was just the beginning of a strong stretch of great starts for Italiano with the Cougars. In 14 outings, Italiano, who is still only 22 despite missing nearly two seasons, went 7-0 with a sparkling 1.16 ERA. He struck-out 79 Midwest League hitters and allowed only two homeruns in 70 innings. That performance earned Italiano a starting nod in the 2008 Midwest League All-Star game. After two years marred by injuries, Italiano's All-Star experience was a big moment in his career.

"It was awesome. It was my first time experiencing anything like that. I had a great time with all of my teammates there and I'll never forget it, that is for sure," Italiano said.

Soon after the All-Star break, Italiano earned a promotion to High-A Stockton that was nearly three years in the making. Although Italiano enjoyed his time playing in Kane County, he was relieved and excited to finally be making the first move up the A's organizational ladder.

"[Kane County has] great people there and it is a fun place to play, but obviously the goal is to move up, so you want to spend the least amount of time that you can at any one level. I'm definitely glad to be out of there, even though it was a fun place to play. I'm looking forward to continuing to move up from here," Italiano said.

Since arriving in Stockton, things haven't gone as smoothly for Italiano. He has struggled with some mechanical flaws that have led to wildness up in the strike-zone. Through 24 innings with the Ports, Italiano has 24 strike-outs, but he has walked 22 and he sports an ugly 10.88 ERA. His last four appearances have come out of the bullpen as the organization has sought to limit his innings due to his prior shortened seasons. The first two bullpen appearances were intended to be long relief outings, but his last two outings have been of the short-relief variety.

On Friday, Italiano had his best outing as a member of the Ports, working a one-two-three inning in short relief. He struck-out two and had all of his pitches working.

"That was my fourth time coming out of the bullpen," Italiano said on Sunday.

"The other three times I did it, I came out knowing that I was going to try to go five innings each time. That was the first time that I have had to go out there and say, ‘alright, one inning.' That felt good. It was the first time I've ever done it and I liked it. I don't know if you have a different mindset [than pitching as a starter or in long relief] because you are still just trying to get each hitter out, but you definitely get to put a little more into each pitch."

Unfortunately for Italiano, he was unable to build on the momentum of his Friday outing, as his control betrayed him yet again on Monday night in a one-inning outing. He allowed three walks, a hit and two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in the Ports' game versus Bakersfield. Italiano was on the hook for the loss when Stockton stormed back in the top of the ninth inning, scoring seven runs to beat Bakersfield, 9-4. Italiano wound-up as the winning pitcher in the game, his first win for Stockton, despite the rough inning.

Italiano has been working hard with Stockton pitching coach Garvin Alston to correct some mechanical issues that have caused him to struggle with Stockton. He is looking to regain the consistency he had with his pitches early in the year, especially with his change-up.

"The beginning of the year, it was my change-up that was really working. Definitely at Kane County, that was my best pitch," Italiano said. "I haven't really found [a best pitch] in Stockton yet. Hopefully, all of them start coming around here. My fastball has always been my bread-and-butter, my best pitch. So I'm focusing on that."

That fastball, which is still regularly clocked in the mid-90s even after his 2006 shoulder troubles, is a big reason why Italiano has 103 strike-outs in 94 innings this season.

With 94 innings pitched on the season, Italiano has almost tripled the number of innings he pitched over the last two seasons combined. Although Italiano admits that he is a little fatigued at this point in the season, he doesn't believe the tiredness is affecting his performance, nor is he feeling intimidated by the more advanced California League.

"I've felt comfortable since I got to Stockton," Italiano said.

"I'm a little tired, but I feel good. My arm feels good, my body feels good."

The fact that Italiano is still pitching this late in the season is a major accomplishment given the disasters that befell him in each of the past two Mays. When the calendar reached June 1 this season and he was still on the active roster for Kane County and pitching well, Italiano felt a sense of achievement.

"That was big. I remember when May rolled around, it was kind of in the back of my mind that I hadn't made it past that month the past two years. Getting past that was a big deal. I felt good about playing baseball in June. That was a good feeling," Italiano said.

As the season hits its final three weeks, Italiano is looking to recapture the form that made him the best pitcher in the Midwest League during the first half of the season.

"It felt great [to be that dominant in Kane County]. I wish I could have kept it up [with Stockton]," Italiano said.

"It's tough to keep that up all year. It would have been nice to do, but it was great to be able to do that down there. Hopefully I'll be able to get back to that level up here."

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