The Forgotten One

Thumbing through some notes from late last year, I recently stumbled across something previously forgotten.

If it had been a snake, it would have bitten me.

Browsing through some old notes from last summer, which generally only consist of several Word documents scattered across my hard drive that in this case was a five and a half minute taped audio conversation, there it was. It took me a few seconds to piece together just what at first, but soon after, I had my answer.

The first thought that popped into my mind was: "How did I forget about this?"

At the time this particular piece was set to be published, right-hander Justin Berg was a name fresh on the minds of several Cub fans -- those who hadn't completely and helplessly dove headfirst into football season, anyway. Berg had been acquired from the New York Yankees for outfielder Matt Lawton a little over one month earlier on August 27 and was just making his way into the Cubs' post-season Instructional League camp in Arizona.

Berg hadn't been an overly popular name on the Yankees' lower Class-A radar with short-season Staten Island of the New York-Penn League (despite going 6-2 with a respectable 3.53 ERA in 15 games), but he did go out with a bang in his final start with the Yankees' farm club.

In a game against Hudson Valley on August 24, the 21-year-old northern Wisconsin native faced the minimum 15 hitters, allowing no hits or walks, and striking out seven in five perfect innings before exiting. He won five of his last six decisions with the Yankees and posted a 3.05 ERA in his last 13 games before coming over to the Cubs and making two formal starts with Peoria to close out the regular season.

Doing both starting and relieving for Staten Island and manager Andy Stankiewicz (a former major leaguer with the Yankees), Berg became a versatile pitcher, often rotating back and forth between the rotation and a setup role. He performed better as a starter, though, going 3-0 with a 2.72 ERA in nine outings. He held opposing hitters to a .199 average in those starts.

To be involved in a trade at such a young age and early point in his career came as quite a shock.

"It was a huge surprise," said Berg, still adjusting to his new surroundings at the time. "I didn't expect it at all. It's not a bad surprise … it was definitely a good thing and an honor to be traded for a major league player.

"I really didn't know what to think at first. I didn't know if there were other guys involved in it, or if there was some sort of money or anything. So to find out that it was a straight up deal was pretty awesome. My initial reaction was pretty much one of shock. It didn't really sink in until the next day. All in all, I'm glad it happened."

Berg played two years of junior college ball in Iowa and was picked up in the late rounds of the 2003 draft. A draft and follow, his first professional assignment saw him sent to Florida, where the Yankees' other short-season affiliate won the 2004 Gulf Coast League championship. Berg struggled that first year with a 5.87 ERA in 15 games, and an opponents average of .317.

A 6'3" presence on the mound, Berg is a low 90's sinker ball specialist who mixes in a slider and a changeup for good measure. During the Instructional League this past October, the latter pitch was one Berg said he was hoping to improve on.

"It's a pretty good pitch, but it needs to be a little bit slower," he acknowledged.

The Cubs also asked that he work on his direction from the pitcher's mound to home plate.

"I had struggled a little bit with that, and with my stride length in the past," Berg said. "Now I'm using my lower half more and staying on top of the ball. What I want is a good, clean finish to my pitches."

As a former 43rd-round pick with little to no college career or never-ending hype to pad his resumé, Berg knows his road to the big leagues may be paved a little differently.

He may not ever receive the same amount of press as others around him; may not even be as flashy as other pitchers; crack any top prospect charts for years to come; or overstress some unique burning desire to pitch at the next level.

But that's all right.

"I haven't really had to overcome anything in my career," he said modestly. "I've worked hard, though, and hard work will show off."

Northsiders Report Top Stories