Berg Draws Lofty Comparisons

When Justin Berg came to Tennessee this past summer to play for Pat Listach, he already knew the manager. The first encounter came more than a decade ago when Listach was a Milwaukee Brewer, and Berg a little kid.

Berg, a native of Wisconsin, grew up a fan of the Brewers and remembers watching Listach, an infielder and American League Rookie of the Year, in the big leagues.

When Berg's parents came to Tennessee to see their son pitch this past summer, Berg dug out an old baseball card of Listach and had him sign it for his family.

"My parents came down and I had him sign a baseball card that I had from 1994," Berg said. "I gave him a little bit of guff definitely. I grew up a Brewers fan. That was my team growing up. I loved them."

Listach smiled when reminded of the encounter, but it did make the 40-year-old manager feel a little old.

"Exactly," Listach said with a shake of his head. "He's a good kid."

Berg is also quite young. He was 22 when he made his first start in Double-A, and he turned 23 last June.

He could be back in Double-A in 2008, or he might be promoted to Triple-A. The major leagues are also in sight for the fireball pitcher with the wicked sinkerball. All he needs to do is throw it for strikes more and the Cubs will come calling.

"He'll touch 94, 95 (mph)," Smokies pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said of Berg's fastball on the radar gun. "Most sinkerball pitchers throw 85 to 87. He does it at 91, 92 consistently. You can't teach that. When he figures out how to throw more strikes, he's going to be a big league pitcher."

Berg used to belong to the New York Yankees, but he was traded to the Cubs in 2005 for outfielder Matt Lawton. The trade seems to have been a benefit for the Cubs.

Chicago has an abundance of outfielders, and in Berg the organization got a 6'4 right-hander with plus stuff who is drawing comparisons to Arizona Diamondbacks ace, Brandon Webb.

"I told him that he's got the second best sinker in baseball behind Brandon Webb," Lewallyn said. "And then when I thought about it (I) said, ‘You might have a better one than Webb. The difference is Webb is consistent.'

"He needs consistency, which hopefully will come with innings."

Those innings came this summer with the Smokies. Berg threw 140 innings, second on the team behind Mark Holliman's 161.1 and finished the regular season 7-7 with a 4.95 ERA. He walked the same number, 69, that he struck out.

Two other numbers stood out: Berg only gave up four home runs, and he hit 14 batters.

"The fact that's he got 140 innings and given up only four home runs, that's a number that plays in the big leagues," Lewallyn said.

Lewallyn went to bat for Berg in terms of the hit batsmen. Nobody else on the staff approached double digits (Holliman was the closest with eight).

Listach even gave Berg the nickname of "Plunk."

"I always go back to Brandon Webb because they're both sinkerball pitchers," Lewallyn said. "When I was in the Diamondback organization, he set a California League record. He hit (27) guys in one summer. So when Pat brings up that number, 14, I say, ‘That's not even close.'

"That's part of being a sinkerball pitcher who hasn't learned to control his delivery yet. The sinker runs in and most of the guys he hits are right-handed batters. When he learns to control his delivery – he's still almost like a baby deer; he's still got his fawn legs under him right now – and when he matures physically, the delivery should get to where he can repeat it," added Lewallyn.

Berg smiled rather sheepishly when asked about the number. In a late summer game at Smokies Park, he hit the opposing pitcher in what was clearly an unintentional plunking.

"No, not at all," Berg said of the incident. "Maybe one (was intentional), but definitely not the pitcher when they're trying to give you an out. A lot of it has to do with my control. It's not been the best. The one that happened slipped out of my hand."

Berg's youth is sometimes apparent on the mound, but it is not during media requests. He is unfailingly polite and smiles a lot. A few teammates listened in on one interview and gave him a good-natured hard time, but he just grinned and tried to focus on the questions.

He was born in Antigo, Wis., and that apparently is also a source of amusement in the clubhouse.

"He's from Wisconsin and that's a little bit different mindset than everybody else," Lewallyn said. "That's the great thing about my job. I've seen so many different personalities over the years. It's refreshing. He may be street savvy, but baseball they're naïve.

"You can teach them a little bit, and you can see them mature as an individual and as a professional. Part of our job, before they get to the big leagues, is we have to teach them how to be a professional because you don't want them going up to the big leagues and they can't conduct an interview, or they can't throw it over the plate, or they can't hold runners. It's not just a matter of throwing strikes."

Berg was thrown a curveball in 2005 when he learned that he had been traded from the Yankees to the Cubs. At the time, he was in Staten Island, N.Y. (6-2, 3.53 ERA in 15 games) with the Yankees' Class Low-A club.

"It was unbelievable, especially in Short Season A," Berg said of the trade. "It doesn't happen. It was pretty unique. I was just getting to know everybody. It was different. I didn't know how to handle it at first. I didn't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. I thought I was dreaming for a while.

"It was definitely shocking just going from one team to the next. I packed all my things up and drove over to Peoria (the Cubs Class Mid-A team). To come into the locker room and not know anybody and have to do it all over again for the first time, it's pretty difficult. But these guys are an easy bunch to get along with. It was a fairly smoother transition than I thought it was going to be."

Berg appeared in two games in Peoria and then in 2006 went to Class-A Daytona, where he was 7-7 with a 4.38 ERA over 24 games. He had been drafted by the Yankees in the 43rd round in 2003 out of Triton College in Chicago.

He used this past summer with Lewallyn to try to become more consistent in his starts, and he showed considerable improvement from April to August.

"I told him that he's got the second best sinker in baseball behind Brandon Webb. And then when I thought about it (I) said, ‘You might have a better one ... " -- Tennessee pitching coach and former Diamondbacks coach Dennis Lewallyn.

Berg was asked to be his own scout of his pitching performances.

"It's kind of tough," he said. "I've definitely improved. "If I were a scout and I'd seen me throw multiple times this season, I'd definitely say that I've improved as far as control and location and throwing different pitches in different counts. If I'm behind in the count, I'm able to throw a slider over for a strike, using my off-speed more and more effectively. I think that's been a huge improvement for me. I think that's what led me to throw longer outings.

"I've been working really hard with Dennis Lewallyn on refining my mechanics and really trying to use my upper half to get over and get my hand out in front," Berg added. "It helps me with my control and with keeping the ball down in the zone. Being a sinkerball pitcher, you've definitely got to keep the ball down. You get hurt when it's up and it's flat. Anybody can hit it, even the pitcher."

Berg will now head to the Arizona Fall League, where he will join 2007 Smokies pitchers Matt Avery, Grant Johnson and Rocky Roquet on the Mesa Solar Sox. Outfielder Sam Fuld, who is now with the parent club, and infielders Joe Simokaitis and Josh Lansford were also selected to be with the Solar Sox in October.

"I was really excited," Berg said of his selection for the league. "It's going to be a great league to play in. I'll be around a good bunch of guys and some really good players. I think it will definitely be good."

Lewallyn said the Fall League would allow a young pitcher like Berg to get some more time on the mound.

"Just getting more innings," Lewallyn said of the overall benefit. "He's fairly young and being from Wisconsin, he probably hasn't played as much baseball as somebody from Texas or Florida or whatever because of the weather. He needs a little more experience and the more innings he can get, the better for him.

"His biggest thing is repeating his delivery."

Part of that process requires becoming comfortable on the mound. When Berg pitches from the windup, the ball is in his glove to start his delivery to the plate.

When Berg pitches out of the stretch, he swings his arm from side to side, and it resembles the tick-tock of a grandfather clock. (You may recall the late former major leaguer Rod Beck used to have a similar motion.)

"It just started last year," Berg said. "I don't even know why I do it. I used to hold the ball behind my back. Now that I throw with the ball in glove (from the windup), I don't know what to do with my arm. I just leave it hanging. It's kind of like a rhythm. It's just something to do."

Lewallyn's attitude is basically: "whatever works."

"It can be more of a relaxation thing," Lewallyn said. "I've seen a little bit of everything. That's the main thing from a pitching standpoint; you've got to be comfortable and relaxed when you're on the mound. If there's tension in your body, it's going to carry over to your delivery, and you're not going to be able to throw strikes."

Berg is well on his way to finding both the comfort and strike zones.

"I think I am definitely making good strides," he said. "What happens happens, and the only thing I can worry about is me. Being as young as I am in Double A is definitely a good thing, I think, and to be a starter is definitely a good thing. I can't look back; just kind of keep going forward and keep getting better."

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