Oakton Grad Back on the Mound with Royals
Baseball pitcher Eric Cantrell returns to minor league duty after abbreviated season in 2010
Eric Cantrell, a graduate of Oakton High School, was pitching in his first professional game in June 2010 when he felt some discomfort in his shoulder.
Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the seventh round out of George Washington University a few days earlier, the Major League club decided not to take any chances. The Royals decided to “shut him down,” which in pro baseball lingo means keep him away from game action the rest of the season.
“I had thrown a lot of innings in college (in 2010). They wanted to be cautious,” Cantrell, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, told Patch. “They wanted to be careful.”
Nearly one year later Cantrell, a right-hander who pitched for the Vienna Senators when he was in college, has returned to the mound in the Kansas City farm system.
On Thurday night, on a day the temperature reached nearly 100 degrees in southern Virginia, Cantrell made his fourth start (and sixth appearance) for Burlington (NC) Royals, a farm team in the rookie Appalachian League.
He was taken out of the game with one out in the bottom of the fifth after he gave up a run-scoring single to host Danville's Kyle Kubitz that tied the game at 4. Cantrell entered the game with a record of 0-2 and an ERA of 5.94 in 16.2 innings this season for Burlington, and had allowed 18 hits and 13 walks with 16 strikeouts.
"I had to go to the resin bag a lot. The ball was slipping a little bit," he said after Thursday's 5-4 loss, standing in the visiting clubhouse at Dan Daniel Memorial Park in the Piedmont region of Virginia.
Cantrell went 4.1 innings and allowed seven hits, five earned runs and fanned four with no walks as his ERA rose to 6.86. "You have to deal with it," he said, before getting on the team bus on a sticky night in Danville. "There are things that you cannot control."
Burlington pitching coach Bobby St. Pierre, a former pitcher at the University of Richmond, said Thursday that Cantrell pitched better than his statistics may indicate against Danville. "He is making progress," said St. Pierre, who grew up in Maryland.
Nearly four hours from his home in Oak Hill, Cantrell is working his way up the Kansas City's minor league system, which has some of the top prospects in organized baseball.
“I pitched the (last week) and it was the best my arm has felt in two years. I have high hopes for the rest of the season,” said Cantrell, whose fastball has been clocked around 92 miles per hour to go along with a change up and curve.
His manager last season in Idaho Falls was Brian Buchanan, a Fairfax High graduate who played at the University of Virginia and for several years in the big leagues as an outfielder. After just one game on the mound in the Pioneer League, Cantrell spent a few weeks with the team before he was sent to the Kansas City spring training complex in Surprise, Ariz., to continue his rehab assignment.
Cantrell, who turns 22 today, did not require surgery and spent the winter at home in Virginia before reporting to spring training. “It has been a process. Early in spring training my arm did not feel 100 percent. The process got delayed a little bit. The arm is feeling much better,” he said.
“The first time I threw (since June 2010) was in February,” he added. “That was the longest break I had since before high school. Getting back into it is more difficult than I thought it would be. But the best is ahead of me.”
The Royals hope the same thing.
Scott Sharp, the director of minor league operations for the Royals, also played college baseball at George Washington. He was a catcher in the minor league system of the Cincinnati Reds before he began a career in scouting.
Sharp said Cantrell has battled shoulder fatigue as a pro. "He has done okay. Eric is a competitor," said Sharp, who saw Cantrell pitch a few weeks ago with Burlington.
In his first and only pro appearance last year, Cantrell pitched two innings for Idaho in the Pioneer League and had an ERA of 9.00.
Going into this season Cantrell was not ranked among the top 30 prospects in the Kansas City farm system according to Baseball America, the industry leader. But Baseball America did rank Cantrell as the No. 8 right-handed reliever on the depth chart of the farm system of Kansas City.
The regular-season in the Appalachian League ends Aug. 30.
Cantrell posted a mark of 16-5 in high school and graduated from Oakton in 2007, the same year he was named most valuable player for the team. He was an Atlantic 10 all-rookie player at GW in 2008 and earned all-league honors in 2010 when he went 8-4 with an ERA of 3.67 and 114 strikeouts, a record at GW.
"He is a very tough competitor," said Steve Mrowka, the head coach at GW. "He is a quiet guy but when he gets on the mound he is like (former Atlanta pitcher) Greg Maddux. He gets very intense. He has a good assortment of pitches."
One of the biggest adjustments to minor league baseball is bus trips, and staying in two-star hotels. After some road trips the Burlington team has arrived back home around 1 a.m. and then had a game later that day.
“It is not pleasant. It is definitely different than college,” said Cantrell, who shares a room with a teammate at a hotel in Burlington, an old factory town. “You have your (appointed) day to pitch in college. Now you have rainouts that can push back your start. You have to get used to it. The season is long.”
St. Pierre, who played at DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland, has been a good sounding board for Cantrell. “We talk a lot about how to approach guys and how to pitch in certain situations,” Cantrell said of St. Pierre, who pitched in the minor leagues. “Now (pitching) is more of the mental part of the game.”
And the Oakton High grad hopes to learn more about that mental side as he climbs the ladder in the Kansas City system.