Ballard unexpectedly joins playoff race

Left-handed pitcher Mike Ballard received a surprising phone call early in the week, as he was informed that he would be joining Double-A Frisco for the Texas League playoffs. Lone Star Dugout recently spoke with the 23-year-old hurler about his season, his development, and his playoff experience thus far.

After throwing a career-high 164 innings this season, left-handed pitcher Mike Ballard was looking forward to an offseason of relaxation at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

"I'm actually looking forward to getting back in the ocean," said Ballard. "I miss the ocean and I miss surfing. I'll probably just hang out and do a little fishing, maybe a little part-time job. I'll definitely relax. I'm looking forward to hanging out on the couch with my pops and just watching football on the weekends."

Ballard's offseason plans – and his road trip back home – took a quick detour as he received a call on Tuesday, September 4.

"I was actually in a car heading back to the east coast from Bakersfield," replied Ballard. "I was somewhere in the middle of the desert out there in California. Then my phone rang."

The call was from Rangers Director of Minor League Operations John Lombardo, who informed Ballard that he would be joining Frisco's pitching staff for the Texas League playoffs. Ballard was shocked by the news.

"I was definitely taken aback by it," he said. "It didn't really hit me at first. I guess when I got off the phone and [Lombardo] told me I was going there, I thought about it for a second and I was like ‘wow, this is really cool."

The Rangers' 14th round pick out of the University of Virginia in 2006, Ballard finished his first full professional regular season with a 14-7 record and a 4.50 ERA.

Although Ballard posted a 4.99 ERA in 14 starts with the High-A Bakersfield Blaze, he showed drastic improvement as the season progressed. The southpaw was a perfect 3-0 with a 3.54 ERA in six August starts with the Blaze.

Ballard came away satisfied with his overall body of work.

"I felt like I had a pretty strong second half with [the Blaze]," said Ballard. "There were a few bumps along the way obviously, but in all, I was pleased with the way my first full season went."

During his time with the Single-A Clinton LumberKings, Ballard was able to keep the ball down in the zone, as he induced nearly two groundouts per flyout. However, he surrendered 12 home runs in just 14 California League starts. Ballard says it was due to a mixture of poor pitches and hitter's ballparks.

"It's a tough league to pitch in," said Ballard of the Cal League. "There were times when I did get the ball up, but there are also times where you make good pitches and guys just put good swings on it. With the way that league plays hitting-wise, sometimes fly balls tend to go a little farther there."

Ballard reached Double-A in his first full season.
Despite tossing his aforementioned career-high 164 innings in 2007, Ballard finished strong with Bakersfield. Part of the reason for the late-season success was because the Virginia native began to lighten his workload in between starts.

"Instead of throwing the two bullpens between starts, I started backing off and realized I don't need to put in as much work between starts," explained Ballard. "That way I am full strength for my actual start. Learning that and picking it up along the way, I realized how my body adjusted to making those changes throughout the season."

Already armed with a solid three-pitch repertoire that includes a four-seam fastball, a curveball, and a changeup, Ballard used the 2007 season to learn how to work inside with his fastball.

"As simple as this may sound, I guess it's just really establishing my fastball," said Ballard when asked what he focused on this season. "Really establishing it in on guys and not being afraid to throw it in on guys and worry about it hitting them."

Playing in his first full season against wooden bats, Ballard has never had to worry about breaking a bat before.

"It was something I was a little shy of coming from college because you pitch against aluminum bats for so many years," he said. "You just get kind of shy of pitching in because there's so much risk with very little reward. You jam a guy and he still gets a double off you because it's a metal bat."

The idea to begin pitching inside originated early in the season when Clinton pitching coach Danny Clark had a talk with Ballard.

"My pitching coach in Clinton – Danny Clark – sat down with me and we had a talk," said Ballard. "I started off the season with a few rough starts and he just sat me down and basically told me I have good enough stuff and I'm giving the hitters too much credit. He said I need to pitch inside, I need to scare some guys, and I need to move some feet. I've felt like ever since that day forward, I have really just tried to keep that locked in my mind."

Since that talk, Ballard has progressed halfway up the organizational ladder.

While the ‘Riders dropped their playoff opener to the San Antonio Missions on Wednesday night, Ballard – who was in uniform for his first Double-A game – was excited by the atmosphere.

"It was definitely a great atmosphere," he said. "It was awesome. Every pitch, every play, and every at bat meant something. It was really big and you could tell by the crowd. The whole atmosphere was just so cool. It really gets you excited."

Even though Frisco was swept in their best-of-five playoff series, Ballard was able to appear in his first Double-A game during Friday night's loss. He faced two batters in the bottom of the seventh inning, retiring both while recording one strikeout.

With the 2007 campaign now in his rearview mirror, it becomes time to look ahead to the 2008 season. Ballard – who begins his offseason sans Texas League championship ring – is unsure where he will be pitching next April.

"I guess what I've learned along the way is you really don't find out too much until it's actually happening," said Ballard. "I'm just going to go out there, do my job the best I can, and let things happen."

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