The Pitcher From Out of Nowhere

When you consider Eric Stults, first look at the school he attended- Bethel College. No, not the one in Kansas, nor the one in Tennessee , nor the one in Minnesota , though they all exist. This one is located in Mishawaka, Ind.. It has fewer than 1,000 students and the athletes are there to get a degree , not hone their skills for a rich pro contract. <b>(Free Preview of Premium Content)</b>

They don't even have a football team . No NBA scout wanders by the basketball court. Nor did scouts from pro baseball visit the diamond until they heard about Stults . Then, they had to get out an atlas to find the place.

Eric Stults was actually playing two sports at the school, which demostrates what a quaint place it is. Basketball was his forte while in the spring he turned to baseball, playing both center field and pitching . It was in 2002 that the word got out that he was well worth a look.

Not that his fast ball lit up the speed gun, you understand. No, he threw in the mid-to-upper 80's but complemented that with a solid breaking pitch and an effective change-up. It's just that he was a lefthander who knew how to get batters out by changing speeds and locating pitches effectively.

Worth a look thought Dodger scout Marty Lamb, who recommended him. So, the Los Angeles Dodgers chose him in the 15th round, down among the "maybe's", frankly , signed him and sent him to Great Falls in the Pioneer League to see how he fared.

It became obvious very quickly that his skills were above that league. In eight innings of relief, he was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA and nine strikeouts. Deciding he needed further challenging, he was whisked off to Vero Beach. There, both starting and relieving, he thrived, as a 3-1 , 3.00 record with 40 strikeouts in 42 inings indicates. So, it was that he finished the season in Jacksonville. Only got in one inning but that was 1-2-3 and out.

From tiny Bethel to AA in a single season. No one had climbed higher any quicker and more improbably. The Dodgers couldn't wait till the next season to see what he could do for an encore.

Alas, it was a struggle. Opening the year at Jacksonville, he didn't have the same touch , slumping to 3-4, 4.97. It was obvious that something was wrong with his arm but they hoped he could rest it, then resume. He tried that back at Vero , made one start in which he lasted only three innings, giving up six hits and wound up having arm surgery.

Midway through 2004, his rehabbing done, Eric started down the trail back, first at Columbus where he was used as a closer, picking up three saves, a 1-2 mark and a promising 2.49 ERA. That gained him some time at Vero once more, going 2-1, 2.70 in 10 innings.

Stults admitted that there were times when he didn't feel right then . Thus spring, though, he felt okay for the first time in awhile and so far has looked it. He's in the Jacksonville rotatation and so far has won his only decision, posted a 2.25 ERA and has fanned 12 in 17 innings.

He'll give up some hits, you understand. That's the downside of always being around the plate with less than overwhelming stuff. But he's stingy with walks (only two so far) and a tough competitor , particularly with men on. The oppostion is hitting .254 against him but he makes quality starts.

He's 25 now , a 6-3 ,215-pound lefthander who is once again demonstrating that he may come from an obscure background but he's a pitcher with the skill to be a winner. Not a prospect to rank with Billingsley or Tiffany but he has a way of making his presence felt in an extremely positive fashion.