Adjusting to the Curve

Hopewell-Loudon graduate Sendelbach making progress for Pirates’ Double A squad

PHOTO BY JILL GOSCHE Logan Sendelbach, a Hopewell-Loudon graduate and former Tiffin University pitcher, heads to the mound to pitch against the Akron RubberDucks at Canal Park in Akron Friday night. He retired the lone batter he faced.

AKRON — Logan Sendelbach probably wasn’t supposed to pitch Friday night.

The right-handed reliever for the Altoona Curve — the double A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates — knew he was slated to throw the next day, meaning his friends and family who had come to see him would have to wait.

So Sendelbach, a graduate of Hopewell-Loudon High School who then pitched at Tiffin University — sat in the bullpen at Canal Stadium in Akron, watching his teammates take on the Akron RubberDucks.

Relief pitching in the minor leagues — and the goals that are hoped to be reached by it — are different than in the majors, or just about anywhere else.

The goal isn’t to quash rallies and rack up wins. It’s to develop talent.

So while he hasn’t been a starter for the Curve, the 24-year-old Sendelbach is in something of a rotation.

It’s a bit of an adjustment for the pitcher who was a star starter with the Chieftains and Dragons and who made 26 starts just two years ago when pitching for the Single A West Virginia Power.

But as with everything else that baseball has thrown at him, the fourth-year pro is taking it in stride.

“I knew I was gonna be in the long relief role, but just getting situated into Double A hitters is a big thing,” he said outside Curve’s clubhouse Saturday. “Just getting a feel for, rotation-wise, when I’ll be up, how many days I may have off.”

And Friday was an off day.

Well, it was supposed to be.

Until he got a call.

Pressed into duty

With the RubberDucks leading the Curve 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Altoona reliever Yeudi Garcia, a right-hander, was summoned. He did his job without incident in the sixth, but in the seventh, the Ducks scored twice, pushing their lead to 4-1.

But it wasn’t Garcia’s seventh-inning struggles that caused his removal.

Instead, it was a liner off the bat of Akron DH Andrew Calica. The ball hit Garcia in the arm, and ricocheted toward first. Garcia gathered himself, retrieved the ball and threw out Calica.

But the trainer and manager Michael Ryan were soon out, and then, so was Garcia.

Sendelbach wasn’t warming.

But he got the call.

“I knew, since it was an injury to a pitcher, I had as many pitches as possible to get warmed up, so I really didn’t hurry myself at all, or rush myself to get warmed up on the mound out there,” the 2015 10th-round pick said. “Just the regular bullpen routine you would go through if I were to go into the game, so just relax, and get warmed up.”

Cheers from right field came down as Sendelbach made the jog to the center of the diamond — something of a Seneca County effect. There were members of his family, teammates, even H-L baseball coach Tony Swanagan (the coach later tweeted that the Sendelbach contingent took up an entire section of Canal Park).

It didn’t catch Sendelbach off guard. Akron is the closest Eastern League team to Tiffin and Bascom, after all.

“A couple weeks out I knew some family and friends were gonna come (to this series), just because it is the summertime,” he said. “The kids are out of school, so my cousins were gonna come with their parents. It’s fun to see them there in the stands. I don’t really look for them, but I hear them.”

With a runner on second and two out, Sendelbach faced RubberDucks centerfielder Ka’ai Tom. Like Sendelbach, Tom is a product of the 2015 Amateur Draft — the Indians took him in the fifth round. He already had knocked in a run Saturday.

Sendelbach wanted to make sure he didn’t drive in another.

“Two outs, guy on second, just (wanted to) kind of diffuse the situation before anything gets started,” he said.

Sendelbach first tried a breaking ball to Tom that was low and outside. Then, he threw two fastballs, each clocked at 91 miles per hour.

“I ended up getting the ground ball, that’s what I wanted,” Sendelbach said.

Tom was retired on a grounder to short. Three pitches, one out, and Sendelbach’s night was over. He was taken out before the eighth. The Ducks ended up winning, 4-3.

Coming around

When he was pitching for Tiffin University coach Joe Wilkins, Sendelbach’s fastball hit the high 80s, occasionally reaching 90 miles per hour.

This past weekend in Akron, he was consistently hitting the 90s, topping out at 94 mph.

“I’ve been low 90s,” Sendelbach said. “Last year, in the Florida State League, everybody throws harder, just that warm weather and stuff, so I was a little higher than 91 last year, but, you know, just trying to fill up the zone, that’s all I’m worried about right now.”

Sendelbach’s transition to Double A ball didn’t go smoothly at first. After posting a 5-6 record with a respectable 3.58 earned run average last season with the Bradenton Marauders, Sendelbach was hit hard by Eastern League bats. June 2, Sendelbach allowed four runs on six hits in three innings of work against the Hartford Yard Goats, an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. His ERA ballooned to 7.96, and he suffered a loss — to this point his only Double A decision.

It was tough. But it also was common.

“Well, the jump from A ball to double A is one of the biggest jumps in pro ball,” said Bryan Hickerson, the Curve’s pitching coach. “It’s where all these lower level teams funnel into the first level where it’s one 25-man roster, so it’s the biggest jump. Most guys that arrive here from A ball do have … they have to make adjustments.”

Sendelbach admitted things got a lot harder when he got to Altoona.

“The A ball, they’re still kind of free swingers. They don’t have the most mastered approach at the plate,” he said. “But once I got here, I could tell a huge difference from High A. Guys have a lot more of an advanced approach. They stick to it. They’re usually looking for one pitch early in the count, one spot.

Hickerson understands.

A southpaw, he was picked by the Giants in the ninth round of the 1985 draft, the beginning of a pro career that would include stints with three Major League teams — San Francisco, Colorado and the Cubs. In parts of five seasons in the bigs — the last coming with the Rockies in 1995 — Hickerson won 21 games and lost 21 games while starting and relieving.

Hickerson also spent three seasons in Double A.

“You’re pitching against guys through the lineup who are better hitters,” he said. “They’re not just the two or three in an A ball club who are pretty good, but you may have nine really good hitters here tonight. The adjustment mostly is acquiring and maintaining the confidence you have to compete at this level. Using your stuff and not feeling like you have to change because the guys are better.”

And sure enough, Sendelbach has improved. In his past five outings, he has a 1.34 ERA — he’s allowed just one run in his last 8 2/3 innings.

Sendelbach’s upswing was on display Saturday against the RubberDucks. Despite it being the first time this season he pitched back-to-back nights, the former Chieftain shut down Indians’ prospects for two innings. He allowed one hit, and struck out the Ducks’ Willi Castro — the No. 6 prospect in the Cleveland organization.

The two scoreless frames aided the Curve in a 7-5 comeback win over Akron in 10 innings. They also lowered the pitcher’s ERA. In less than a month, he has shaved more than two runs off it, to 5.82.

The pitches

Sendelbach throws three pitches: a sinking fastball, a changeup and a slider.

Curve catcher Christian Kelly, who was drafted by the Pirates one round after Sendelbach in 2015, has been the hurler’s primary backstop. He attributed Sendelbach’s recent success to the location of his second and third pitches.

“He’s starting to land his offspeed for strikes,” Kelly said. “His two-seamer is his bread and butter. That’s what’s going to get him through this game, and his ability to land his offspeeds to keep people off his heater. Moving forward, that’s going to be huge for his career.”

Along with that has been a change in approach.

“Usually, when I’d start, I’d rely mostly on my fastball just to get outs early on,” Sendelbach said. “But being able to go in and throw every pitch for a strike is huge. Because you need to throw those. Say you come in with guys on base, you need to be able to throw all those pitches for strikes early in the count.”

Hickerson said it’s about the stuff, but also the attitude.

“I see a hard-working guy,” Hickerson said of Sendelbach. “I see a guy who is a control pitcher, with three pitches he can command down in the zone, and when he does that, he makes the opposition put the ball on the ground. And I see a guy who works hard and is a good competitor.”

Two steps from the show

It’s fair to say every player on the Curve roster — and the RubberDucks’ roster, for that matter — has big league ambitions.

Without those, they wouldn’t have made Double A.

There is major league experience all over at the level. Hickerson and Ryan each played in the show. The starting pitcher for the RubberDucks Saturday was Indians’ star Carlos Carrasco, making a rehab appearance.

Sendelbach has faced big league talent. He pitched against Nationals infielder and former National League Championship Series MVP Daniel Murphy this season. And Tanner Anderson, a pitcher in the same draft class as Sendelbach, was just called up to the Pirates.

Sendelbach is close.

And Kelly believes the reliever can continue his rise.

“(Earned run average) shows one thing, but how (pitchers are) getting better, and how it’s going to play going up is definitely another thing,” he said. “With the stuff he’s got, he can definitely keep going.”

But Sendelbach knows he’s not there yet.

“It’s just focusing on getting better every day, even if it’s little things and stuff like that,” he said. “(It’s) looking just to master pitches at this point. You have a good feel up to here. Now it’s just perfecting them and getting better every day.”

And Sendelbach knows that — just like Friday night in the bullpen — he has to stay ready.

“You know you are that close,” he said. It can happen in the blink of an eye. And injuries always happen, or trades always happen. You’re that close.”

One call away.