Padres Pitcher of the Year: Midwest League

Sweating just pondering the three choices has left my throat dry and my hands slippery on the keyboard. But a victor must eventually be chosen from the Padres' Midwest League affiliate and the finite details are needed before charting such waters.

Matt Varner placed second in the minors in the Rolaids Relief Award race and led the Midwest League, closing out 34 games successfully. It marked the second year in a row that a Wizards closer has claimed the title of best closer in the league.

The rule for any pitcher is simple. Throw first pitch strikes and get the leadoff man out. Varner accomplished both feats with ease. In the 54 innings that he started, Varner held the opposition to just seven hits, a .146 average. Even when you throw in his eight walks, it equates to a .241 on base percentage to the leadoff hitter of an inning. With one down, the job of the closer becomes that much simpler.

After opening the year with six runs against, Varner could have climbed into his shell and been tormented through the year. But he rose to the challenge and gave up five runs over his next 28 appearances. And that one outing raised his ERA from 3.06 to 4.00 for the year.

In fact, 11 of the 24 runs he allowed over 54 contests came over two games. That means 13 runs yielded in the 52 other appearances he had on the year.

Mike Ekstrom was one of the few players who not only started the year in Fort Wayne but ended there as well.

And that may have been the challenge that helped see his stats dip at the end of the year. Ekstrom had been as consistent as they come through the first two months of the year.

On June 2, Ekstrom was 7-1 with a 1.43 ERA. He had given up two runs or less in ten of his 11 starts. But 15 runs over the next two outings skewed his numbers and he yielded six runs or more in six of his last 17 starts.

On the year, he allowed two runs or less in 17 of his 28 starts and held the opposition to a .257 average against. Where he truly excelled was innings one and two. He allowed 16 runs in 56 innings spanning the first two frames, an ERA of 2.57.

He ended the year with a 36-to-112 walk-to-strikeout ratio and after a 6.12 ERA in June and went on to post a 4.16 ERA the rest of the way.

Some say he tired in his first year of full season ball, although he threw close to 200 innings the year before between college and the Padres' minors, and others wonder about his mind frame after not being promoted but Ekstrom refused to believe it was anything other than the fact that he has to produce more.

"I'd say I got a little bit tired at the end of the year," Ekstrom admitted. "My velocity was down and I wasn't keeping the ball down and that's pretty much a bad conversation."

Armed with a fastball that touches the low-to-mid nineties, Clayton Hamilton was expected to excel in the Midwest League. Once thought of as a quarterback in the making, Hamilton did not disappoint on the diamond.

He rolled off a 9-6 record with a 2.88 ERA in 20 Midwest League starts. He allowed two runs or less in 12 of his 20 starts with the Wizards and only had one start where he gave up more than four runs.

"A nice power arm who has a good mix of pitches and can spin off a breaking ball," Tye Waller said when describing Hamilton.

Of his six losses, three came in what is termed a quality start and one of those was a seven-inning, one-run gem.

Hamilton gave up just three first-inning runs over his 20 starts and held the opposition to a .226 average against. His two trouble spots were the third and sixth innings where his ERA was well over 5.00.

He earned a promotion to Lake Elsinore where his string of solid outings took a dive, along with a groin injury that set him back at the tail end of the year. Ironically, after he surrendered 14 earned runs in his first three starts, he gave up just two in the next four.

And his adjustment to the California League in no way takes away from his excellent year in Midwest League play.

What really spoke volumes in regards to this award was the faith that the Padres' brass had in one player at the end of the year.

They smoothly inserted Matt Varner onto the Lake Elsinore Storm roster for their Championship run, ousting Clark Girardeau in the process.

With such faith bestowed, he cemented himself as the Fort Wayne Pitcher of the Year – the league he left.

The most amazing thing about his season was after the first game in which he was tagged, Varner dropped two pitches from his arsenal, the changeup and the curveball and replaced them with a split-finger fastball and slider. To have that kind of success with two pitches he had only toyed with previously is incredible.

"I had never thrown a split-finger before," Varner admitted. "I am still working on that. Every day I go out and work on that. The slider I had thrown a little bit in junior college and had worked on it then but just kind of shut it down. It was real inconsistent. I modified the grip from what it had been and it is working now."

No kidding!

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