A Pitcher's Best Friend

They say a pitcher's best friend is the double play ball. Cubs pitching prospect Randy Wells, a former catcher/infielder, believes otherwise.

Off to arguably the best start of his professional career, Wells has a 1.57 ERA through seven starts for Double-A West Tennessee. He went on the DL in mid-April after reeling from soreness in his forearm, but has not allowed more than one earned run in any start all year.

In spite of the old adage of the double play, Wells realizes that his success starts directly at the top; that the trick is to keep the guy in the box off base altogether to avoid a situation where a double play is even necessary.

What a simple philosophy, yet one that Wells values above all others. A fierce competitor on the mound, he throws a four-seam fastball, changeup and slider, and mixes in a two-seamer on occasion.

In his first full year as a pitcher (2004), Wells posted a respectable 3-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio for Class-A Lansing in 107-plus innings. He followed that up in 2005 at High-A Daytona with 106 strikeouts to only 22 walks.

And this year, Wells has averaged less than one walk per start with six free passes to 27 strikeouts. He has allowed only a little more than 3.5 hits per start for a .198 average against in 34 1/3 innings.

"I've really bought in to commanding my fastball," Wells told Inside The Ivy prior to his start on Sunday. "You can do so much by not walking guys. Let the hitters get themselves out. You just make quality pitches."

By his own admission, Wells constantly has to restrain himself from overdoing it. Take for instance his recent stint on the DL.

The day after his second start on April 13, Wells says he started to feel some discomfort in his right forearm. He didn't think anything of it at first, but said that doctors reminded him of how delicate the situation could become.

Wells returned from the DL on May 1, only to be placed on a pitch count for the next two starts: 45 pitches or three innings. Having to hold back and unable to fully let loose was frustrating by nature.

"I felt ready to go pitch nine innings," Wells said. "But I knew the Cubs wouldn't let me, because your arm is your ticket out and you have to take care of it. It got frustrating. You want to get out there and get a win."

West Tenn manager Pat Listach pointed to that same competitiveness as one of the motivating factors behind Wells' success since he became a pitcher.

"He knows how to win, and he's going to pitch to win every game," said Listach, the 1992 American League Rookie of the Year with the Milwaukee Brewers. "That's something you can't really teach."

And as a former catcher, Wells is careful in trusting his own catcher's instinct on the mound, and avoids calling his own game.

Jaxx catcher Tony Richie, Wells' teammate last year at Daytona, has helped considerably in that regard. The two are best friends. At Richie's request last fall, Wells had plans to attend at least one Florida State University home football game at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla., where Richie played college baseball in the ACC.

Richie has caught many of Wells' starts these past two seasons.

"I've had to work really hard to get out of the mindset of calling games myself and to trust the guys behind the plate," said Wells. "I'll get stubborn and hard-headed sometimes, but with the quality of catchers we have in Tony and Jose (Reyes), they know what they're doing. They might be paying a little closer attention to a hitter the past four or five games than I am."

Earlier this year, Wells began the new season with a big league invitation to Spring Training. Since then, he's been itching to get back to the major league level and believes he isn't that far away.

As if Double-A hitters aren't enough, dealing with the constant thought of promotions has been a challenge in and of itself.

"I think about it every day," Wells admits. "I want it so bad right now that it's motivating me. It always has, but after a good big league stint [in Spring Training] and seeing what I can do and knowing how I feel, I feel like I'm throwing the ball very well.

"It's eating at me. I can't wait."

But for now, Wells will have to. He remains an important part of a Jaxx pitching staff that leads the Southern League in ERA. The team has a 2.82 staff average and are currently 26-19, three games behind Chattanooga in the Southern League's Northern Division.

The league was idle on Monday, but the Jaxx will open a five-game series with Carolina at Pringles Park Tuesday beginning at 7:05 p.m. CDT.

"(Wells) pitches with a lot of intensity and he's got a lot of heart," Listach added. "He keeps us in every ball game he pitches and that's all you can ask in a starting pitcher. He's done an outstanding job."

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