Darren Sack: Leading the SJ Playoff Push

The San Jose Giants are picking up steam as they charge to the playoffs. Leading them is an unfamiliar pitcher, at least, unfamiliar until now. Darren Sack has done much this season to push the team to the postseason as well as garner deserved attention and recognition. The unfolding of the final weeks of the season is almost as interesting as how and why he plays the game.

Sonoma State University’s dorms are named after wines. It’s not such a farfetched idea for the small college located in the California wine country. Darren Sack pitched three seasons at the university prior to being drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 11th round of the 2004 draft, and he’ll tell you the dormitory nomenclature “definitely gets you in the right mood for partying.”

Don’t be fooled by the allusion of fast times in college. Sack says he chose the Division II college because it is a good baseball school, and that he wanted to go to a smaller school to get a better education.

So it began for the tall right-hander, a career that took off from an unknown baseball program and that finds him in the thick of the California League playoff race. 2004 was a huge year for Sack, as he racked up accolades (All West Region, All Conference), an NCAA tournament appearance, and a school record for strikeouts with 93.

Unexpected praise came from the Jewish Sports Review, a bi-monthly publication that selects Jewish All-America teams in various collegiate sports. The JSR named Sack an All-American 2002-2004, something he was not aware of. “My dad called me one day after freshman year and said ‘congratulations, you're an All-American.’ I thought I didn't even make all-league. I had no idea,” he said, amused.

Of his time at Sonoma State, he said, “We really good team, four or five guys from that team are still playing professionally. A few are in this [California] League.” His pride and competitive spirit come through when he says he wishes he could go back and win for his coaches.

The transition from college to professional baseball was rough for Sack. Both during 2004 in Salem-Keizer and 2005 in Augusta he started games, and neither season went as he would have liked. In the short-season Northwest league he posted an earned run average of 6.23, and the following season in Augusta his win-loss record was 8-7 and his ERA was 5.08. “I didn't do too well,” he admitted when asked about those two seasons. “I left a lot of balls up. I didn't make the right pitches when I needed to.”

At the lower levels of the minor leagues, everything is a learning experience. Sack has learned a lot about himself and how to play baseball, and how to apply his ongoing education every fifth day. “I changed when I got to pro ball, thinking I had to make adjustments because the hitters were going to be better,” he said. “After my first two years I realized it wasn't working. I thought if I'm gonna fail I might as well fail doing what got me here. I went back to how I was pitching in college and I think that's they key of the turnaround in my career.”

Sack is back on top this season in San Jose. He leads the starting staff in ERA at 1.23 and has won seven games in as many starts. This from a pitcher who started the season in extended spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona, and did not join the team until the end of April. The mission was to work out some mechanical flaws in his delivery to the plate and holding runners on base. “I just wasn't getting it done. You can't pitch at this level if you can't do the small things,” he said.

He made it into the rotation from the bullpen in June, and from there has put together a stretch of dominance fueling the Giants’ playoff run. He gives credit where it’s due; his work with the coaches get mention. “I just had to rethink the way I was pitching,” he said. “What I tried to do this year change a lot of things. I worked hard with the pitching coach Jim Bennett and changed a lot of things around in my delivery, where I stand on the mound, how I pitch. Pretty much tried to retool everything.”

In the beginning, there was work. After that, more work. He said it was hard to get into the starting rotation when he arrived. “When I got here, we had a great starting rotation, and we still do. I just had to wait for my turn. I went into the bullpen, and everyone told me I just have to be patient, put up zeroes whenever I can. I slowly did well, kept doing well, and I knew eventually if I kept doing well I'd get my opportunity, when I got it I tried to make the most of it.”

The right-hander works with a slider, a fastball, and a changeup, and he says he likes his slider, maybe a little too much. “It sometimes gets me in trouble because I fall in love with it.” He also emphasizes learning how to command his changeup. “At this level and at the higher levels it becomes a more vital pitch. I've finally started to realize how to utilize that in counts that are fastball counts,” he said.

Now at the epicenter of a playoff run, his sentiments are clear. He wants to win, here and now in San Jose, and in the future. “I want a ring real bad. I want a ring more than you can even imagine,” he insisted. “I don't have one yet. I'd love one. I want to go to the big leagues and help the Giants win a World Series.” He is not worried about pressure or distractions of the playoffs, as San Jose has already clinched a playoff spot by winning the division in first half of the Cal League season. He expects his teammates from last year’s championship effort to keep an even temperament among the newer Giants during the tumult of the postseason.

What does it all mean to Darren Sack? He loves being in California, he loves being a Giant, he loves to win, and he loves to talk. He’s moving up quickly, in place to lead his team to another fantastic season. Where he goes from here will be defined by the things that got him here, and from the looks of things, he’s on the right path.

Chris has been a Giants fan since her days in utero. She loves baseball and writes about whatever she can get her hands on…even the Athletics. She's a Bay Area gal through and through. This is her 24th season of fandom. Love/hate mail can be sent to seasond_salt@yahoo.com, where the love mail gets top priority and the hate mail gets used for kindling.

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