Iowa all-star has come a long way

Jermaine Van Buren has been nothing short of spectacular since joining the Cubs' organization prior to the 2004 season. A former top prospect in the Rockies' farm system, Van Buren was named to his second consecutive all-star game recently, and his first at Triple-A.

"It's good to be acknowledged like that," said Van Buren, who turned 25 on Saturday. "I appreciate the coaches asking me to go. I'm just blessed. A lot of things have been going right recently."

The Laurel, Miss., native has posted solid numbers in his debut season at Triple-A despite a stint on the disabled list that began in late May as the result of a strained muscle in his throwing shoulder. (This season, Van Buren has a 2.45 ERA with 11 saves out of the bullpen.)

"It was nothing serious," he said. "I just needed some rest. Just nagging stuff, man. It got tired from all the work I was putting in everyday to get ready. I feel great right now."

Van Buren's 11 saves this season are tied for fourth in the Pacific Coast League. With relief pitchers constantly shuffled back and forth between Chicago and Des Moines in 2005, Van Buren has remained a stable part of the Iowa bullpen all year.

Pitching in the ninth inning is something the right-hander relishes.

"I love closing," he said. "It's the biggest adrenaline rush other than throwing out the first pitch of a game. It's the ultimate experience for me."

Van Buren was used primarily as a starter before the Cubs plucked him from an independent league prior to last year. He began his career after the Rockies selected him in the second round of the 1998 draft, and his first year in short-season ball was a success. In 12 outings, he went 7-2 with a 2.22 ERA in rookie ball.

But over the next four seasons, Van Buren struggled heavily, and the Rockies released him in March of 2003. He eventually regained his confidence while pitching for the Fort Worth Cats of the independent Central League.

Still used as a starter at the time, Van Buren went 9-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 18 starts. His one-year revival was enough to convince Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry, and now special assistant Gary Hughes, to take a chance on him.

Afterward, Van Buren spent most of his time last season at Double-A West Tenn with a late season promotion to Iowa. He went from Class Mid-A ball at Lansing at the start of his season to Triple-A in a span of roughly five months.

"It's been awesome," Van Buren said of his career turnaround. "Each year is a different process. I try and get better and better after each outing. I put in a lot of work before each game with Rick Kranitz (Iowa pitching coach)."

Van Buren specializes in an 88-90 mph fastball, a slider and curveball. A changeup is currently in the works to combat left-handed hitters, who have accounted for six of Van Buren's nine earned runs allowed this year.

"I like to throw all three of my pitches at any given time," he said. "I don't really have a top pitch. I work best when I'm able to throw them all for strikes.

"It's like I'm a starter who closes," he said jokingly.

Like all prospects, Van Buren has dreams and aspirations of making it to the major leagues. With the Cubs' bullpen constantly changing personnel, Van Buren remains a steady candidate for a September call-up, and more.

He does not feel he will be closing for the big league club anytime soon, though.

"The first step is getting there," Van Buren said. "I think Ryan Dempster is doing a great job. He has the mentality to do it everyday. I think I can be whatever they need me to be, though. Whatever they have in mind, I will be ready for. I'd be ready if I was called up tomorrow."

But for the time being, Van Buren has the Triple-A All-Star game to look forward to in Sacramento on July 13. At this point, he may be the I-Cubs' lone representative with Ronny Cedeno recently re-called to the major league club.

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