This time last year, New Orleans Zephyrs pitcher Elih Villanueva was on the mend after having elbow surgery.
On Wednesday in Durham, N.C., Villanueva will be on the mound for the Pacific Coast League against the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game. He will be the starting pitcher.
“Last year, I missed the greater part of the season after having loose particles removed from my elbow,” he said. “Being able to come back a year later and pitch as well as I have, it’s been pretty nice.”
Villanueva is one of two Zephyrs pitchers selected. Closer Chaz Roe also was picked for his first Triple-A All-Star appearance. However, Roe, who is with his fourth pro organization, has a strained right shoulder and will not participate.
“It’s a great honor to be invited to go there, and to not have the opportunity to play, it’s definitely disappointing,” said Roe, who has spent most of his 10-year career in the minor leagues but is in his first with New Orleans. “But I’d rather rest and get my arm back in shape.”
Villanueva was the PCL’s first pitcher to win eight games, doing so on June 18. Perhaps the only pitcher in the league consistently better early on was the Nashville Sounds’ Jimmy Nelson, who had the best earned-run average (1.46) in minor league baseball when he was called up last week by the Milwaukee Brewers.
“That’s when I pretty much felt I’d be the starting pitcher,” said Villanueva, smiling.
From the start of the season until he won his eighth game, he had a 2.85 ERA, third in the league, through 851?3 innings.
“I think the biggest adjustment is being more aggressive and more consistent with my pitches down in the (strike) zone,” said Villanueva, who is in his fourth season with the Zephyrs. “I have been staying on top of hitters, not throwing a lot of balls and making those pitches count when I’m in big situations.”
Zephyrs pitching coach Charlie Corbell said Villanueva has always had good command of his pitches but this season he’s keeping the ball down and his velocity has been up.
“There’s a big difference in his ground-ball to fly-ball outs,” Corbell said. “He’s keeping the runs off the scoreboard and making our defense make plays behind him. All that stuff just gives you a good team atmosphere.”
Seventy-one percent of his outs have been via ground balls, easily the best of his career. In road games, an impressive 91 percent have come on the ground in 47 innings.
He has pitched 982?3 innings, second on the Zephyrs to Brian Flynn’s 103. Villanueva had 10 starts of six or more innings in his first 16 appearances.
He attributes getting off to a good start to having pitched in the Dominican Republic’s winter league.
“It helped me as far as being able to repeat my mechanics, and coming off that injury season to get some innings under my belt and work all the kinks out before the (PCL) season started,” he said. “It ended up being a great transition to the start of this season, being able to keep everything rolling.”
Roe was rolling as well as anyone in Minor League baseball during a stint from April 16 to June 1. He allowed one run in 24 innings, had a 0.98 earned-run average and converted nine of his first 10 save opportunities. In 22 games from April 16 to June 21, opponents batted .155 against him.
Like Villanueva, he pounded the strike zone down. It’s just the way he pitches, said Roe, who last season was in high-altitude Reno.
“I just used both my pitches (fastball, slider) effectively, and that helped me get ahead in the count and get out of there with three or less pitches to each batter,” he said.
For Roe, coming to the Zephyrs was another career adjustment. He began his career in 2005 in the Colorado Rockies’ organization as a first-round draft pick (35th overall). He became a closer in 2011 with Tacoma (Seattle Mariners) and has done so since, getting a 21-game stint (221?3 innings) with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.
However, Steve Cishek is entrenched as the Marlins’ closer, so the organization has those in its system work on other roles they’d likely have with the big-league team.
“(Manager) Andy (Haines) said some days I’d close and some days I’d pitch two innings,” Roe said.
He struggled the first two weeks of the season. Roe began to pitch better, however, after last year’s Zephyrs All-Star closer, Chris Hatcher, was called up to the Marlins.
“I don’t think it Hatcher’s leaving is why he got better,” Corbell said. “(Roe) is still throwing a lot of multiple innings, a lot of different stints. I think his body just had to get used to it. He’d been a guy who only pitched one-inning stints.”
Villanueva has struggled in his past three games, and Roe has been on the disabled list since July 7. Corbell said the All-Star break will be helpful.
“Villanueva pitched winter ball for the second consecutive year to keep himself ready to pitch,” Corbell said. “And, Chaz is due back next week.
“I think this (three-day) break will be good for both of them, and they will return to how they were earlier and have a strong finish to the season.”