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A trio of strong starting pitchers carried the Ft. Wayne Wizards to the Midwest League first-half wildcard berth. But while Luke Steidlmayer and Clayton Hamilton both got the opportunity to move up and show their stuff against higher competition after the All-Star break, Michael Ekstrom never got the call.

Although an unfortunately-timed slump in June may have cost him a promotion and fatigue at the end of the season skewed his numbers, Mike Ekstrom showed an ability to dominate for significant stretches and earned the nod as the Wizards' pitcher of the year.

On June 1, Ekstrom dealt seven innings of one-run ball against Quad Cities, to rack up his seventh win and lower his ERA to a stunning 1.43. But in two starts on the team's next road trip, he was knocked around for 15 runs in 10 innings, shooting his ERA all the way up to 2.96.

"After that road trip, I had to figure some stuff out and get it going back in the other direction," said Ekstrom. And, figure it out he did. He posted nine quality starts in his next 13 outings, including five in a row when he returned to early-season form and allowed only seven runs total in 33 innings.

Ekstrom finished the year third in the league with 13 wins and ninth overall with a 3.70 ERA while working 167.2 innings.

"You can't really control promotions," acknowledged Ekstrom in looking toward next season. "I just want to keep building on what I've already done."

Luke Steidlmayer and Clayton Hamilton were both impressive in their stints in the low Class A league as well. Steidlmayer, on his way back from arm injuries, posted a 2.28 ERA in 59.1 innings before moving up, first to Elsinore and eventually Mobile. Although his season was once again cut short by injury, he remains one of the more intriguing arms in the system.

Hamilton, drafted in the 17th round out of Penn State last year, collected a 9-6 record and 2.88 ERA before his July call-up to the California League. His ERA held up for fourth-best on the circuit. The tall right-hander works a heavy fastball in the low 90's, and should get a shot to move up to Mobile during the 2006 season.

In support of these starters, Wizards' closer Matt Varner also put up impressive numbers on the year. After he allowed eight runs in his first three games, it took three months to allow his next eight. On the year, he collected a league-leading 34 saves and struck out 62 while walking only 18 in 54 innings. His performance this year ensured that a Wizard earned the league's fireman award for the second year in a row, following in the capable footsteps of Leo Rosales.

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