The former YSU standout is enjoying his best season in the minor leagues
By Joe Scalzo
After a strong 2013 season that saw him move up to Double-A Frisco (Texas League), former Youngstown State pitcher Phil Klein added three things for 2014.
1. A cutter.
“It’s not something I really planned or thought out,” said Klein, who is 3-0 with a 0.81 ERA and nine saves in 24 outings with the RoughRiders this season. “It’s just easier to control than my slider, so I use it to throw strikes and keep the ball down. I get a lot of ground balls and swings and misses, too.”
2. A closer role.
“It wasn’t pre-planned or anything,” said Klein, who didn’t have a save in 36 outings in 2013 but did have eight saves in 2012. “Over the course of the season, I was throwing well and being pretty efficient, so I just wound up in that role.”
3. A (slight) Texas twang.
“Oh boy, who knows,” thColumbus, Ohio, native said, laughing. “Maybe I picked something up. Too much traveling.”
Klein, a 30th-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2011, is enjoying the best season of his professional career, striking out 42 batters in 331/3 innings against just 14 walks. Ten of those walks came in his first eight outings.
SDLqI had three or four walks in my first couple outings and it blew my mind because I felt so ready after spring training,” he said, speaking by phone earlier this week. “I was just trying to be too fine with everything. Jeff Andrews, my pitching coach here, said, ‘You pitched too well [in the spring] to do this again.’ And I was like, ‘I know.’ I didn’t want to think about it. Whenever I tell people I’m not going to walk people, that’s when I walk people.”
It hasn’t been a problem since. Klein hasn’t been charged with a run since May 8, a span of 14 outings, and was recently named a midseason All-Star for the Texas League, one of three Double-A leagues in professional baseball.
“This offseason I really tried to simplify a lot of things, more so mentality-wise than mechanical,” he said. “I threw too many pitches last year and had a lot of walks [47 in 671/3 innings in 2013] and I knew what I had to clean up. And outside of the conditioning, it was more about just having fun with it. Not over-thinking stuff. Just throw the ball over the plate and let the hitters do what they want to do.”
That’s been easier as a closer, he said.
“That’s when the game’s fun,” he said. “It’s intense, the crowd gets into it and you have to focus. That’s when I like to pitch. It’s a different story when you’re up or down 10 runs. That’s when guys are usually just taking hacks.”
Klein started the 2013 season with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and moved up to Frisco a month later. While he’d love to move up to Triple-A by the end of the season, he said he’s not worried about it.
“I really try not to think about that,” he said. “When I talk about it, it makes me lose focus on what I’m trying to do. I have no idea what they [the Rangers] have planned, so I try not to worry about it. Maybe at some point this season, but who knows?”
Klein is one of four former Penguins in the minor leagues — pitchers Justin Thomas (Triple-A Salt Lake) and Eric Marzec (Double-A Huntsville) and third baseman Drew Dosch (Single-A Delmarva) are the others — and he said he followed YSU’s run to the NCAA tournament, watching the final innings of the team’s Horizon League-clinching win over Wright State on his phone.
“It was like the seventh or eighth inning when I turned it on and I got to watch the little mosh pit on the pitcher’s mound when they won,” he said. “Then I followed them in the NCAA tournament and they ended up winning one game. That was impressive. It was a great way to end the season.”