Down on the Farm: Giants flame-throwing prospect Ray Black invited to Futures Game

Sacramento River Cats

Down on the Farm: Giants flame-throwing prospect Ray Black invited to Futures Game

Every year, baseball's next young stars are showcased at the All-Star Futures Game. The top prospects in the game gather on the same field for a showdown of USA vs. World. Not too often do you see a 28-year-old in this game with teammates searching for their first hair on their upper lip. 

That's exactly the case with Giants prospect Ray Black, as Bill Laskey revealed on KNBR during the Fourth of July. 

"It was a great feather in the cap to be honest with you," Black said. "It was nice to be invited, to be recognized." 

The game will be on Sunday, July 15, as part of MLB All-Star Week in Washington, D.C. If Black will participate in the game is another story. 

"I'm not sure if I'm going to go or not," Black said. "It's still something I have to discuss with the organization, my agent, my family. We're out here in Sacramento and the game's out in D.C. as you know, so it's a lot of travel for one day to throw one inning.

"Just trying to weigh the pros and cons right now, but an absolute honor to be invited." 

Black's name has been discussed for years within the Giants organization. Ever since he signed with the team as a seventh-round pick in 2011, injuries have derailed Black's right arm that casually throws 100 mph on a nightly basis. Shortly after he signed, Black underwent labrum surgery and was told he only had a one out of three chance at ever throwing a baseball again. 

"When things have gone well, they've gone well. But when they've gone bad, they've gone really bad," Black said on his injury history. 

After years waiting to toe the rubber as his name again was etched on the disabled list, Black finally made his debut in 2014 with the Augusta GreenJackets. He only pitched three games last season due to elbow issues, but now that he's healthy this season, Black has been nearly unhittable. 

Serving as the closer in Sacramento, Black hasn't allowed an earned run in his last 10 appearances out of the bullpen. Over that stretch, he's won two games, allowed four hits and one walk, all while striking out 16 batters. Between Double-A and Triple-A, Black is 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA and has 56 strikeouts to 11 walks in 30.2 innings pitched. 

The big 6-foot-5, 225-pound closer is known for his fastball that has reached 104 mph. In Sacramento, he's also working on a better curveball and slider with pitching coach Steve Kline. Black says at the beginning of the year, the pitches were too close in speed, both at about 82 mph. Now, Black's hard slider sits around 88 mph and has recently touched 92 mph as he then mixes in his slower curveball as well. 

It's been a long road for Black. With success in his pocket one step away from the bigs, his goal has always stayed the same. 

"My goal has always been to get to the big leagues. And whatever way that is, whatever route that is -- I've taken the path less traveled to try and get there and experienced some setbacks, but for me I've always been kind of a short inning guy. Whether that puts me in the back of the bullpen or not... I think that's probably where my role will be."

Between the Flying Squirrels and River Cats, Black has converted five of his six save opportunities. When the game matters most, the River Cats call his name and that's exactly how he wants it. 

"I love having the ball in pressure situations," Black said. "I enjoy it. The new 10th inning role in the minor leagues -- a runner starts on second base -- I love that. When you're going for strikeouts, that's when I like to pitch."

As the Giants (45-43) sit 3.5 games out of first place in the NL West, even Bruce Bochy has admitted to keeping an eye on Black. And Black has done the same with the Giants as his dream gets closer to a reality. For now though, he's solely focused on his role with the River Cats. 

"For me, I'm locked in and just trying to do the best job I can for the Giants here in Sac," Black said shortly before closing out another day's work. 

Down on the Farm: What numbers matter from Samardzija's bad-stats rehab start


Down on the Farm: What numbers matter from Samardzija's bad-stats rehab start

The assumption is, a major league pitcher should dominate his minor league competition when sent on a rehab assignment. The same goes for major league hitters facing minor league arms. That's not always that case, and for good reason. 

More than anything, a rehabbing pitcher is looking to strengthen his arm and be ready to help his big league club when he returns. He also usually has little information on the batters he's facing and is focused on improving specific areas of his arsenal more than rearing back and blowing fastballs by a batter in a Who-Has-A-Hairy-Chest competition. 

A Triple-A stat line like Jeff Samardzija's Tuesday night can make fans panic: 4 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 HR. Samardzija took the loss as the River Cats fell to the Isotopes in Albuquerque, 13-8. 

Here's another factor that can hurt a pitcher rehabbing in the minors -- a ballpark where the flies and Triple-A batters look like Brady Anderson. The ball simply soars in Albuquerque, where the elevation of the park exceeds 5,100 feet above sea level. Of the six earned runs Samardzija allowed, five came in the first inning off two home runs.

Despite being only one game above .500, the Isotopes are second in the Pacific Coast League in home runs (93), sluggling percentage (.485), runs (456), and batting average (.288). All stats are second to the first-place Salt Lake Bees.

Along with allowing six earned runs, Samardzija also struck out six, walked two and totaled 88 pitches over four innings. What matters are the six strikeouts and 88 pitches. Nobody wants to see 88 pitches in only four innings of work, but in this case of working harder than smarter, Samardzija wins. He showed the strength and stanima that should get him back in the rotation sooner than later. 

In three rehab starts with the River Cats, Samardzija has thrown 11 innings while allowing eight earned runs, 17 strikeouts and two walks. After the first inning to forget Tuesday night, Samardzija settled in and only allowed two hits and one run over the next three innings with four strikeouts. 

The Giants have an interesting decision to make soon with their starting rotation. Samardzija has been far from perfect this year, but in this case, look past the tweets (rule No. 1 always) and the box score. He will be back soon and the sample size with Sacramento is more encouraging than some stats suggest.

Down on the Farm: Giants prospect Steven Duggar shows off full skill set


Down on the Farm: Giants prospect Steven Duggar shows off full skill set

The wait continues for the human highlight reel of Scottsdale to go from spring training star to everyday center fielder in San Francisco. As Steven Duggar suits up in Triple-A, he showed off his full skill set from defense to offense in the River Cats’ 10-6 loss Thursday night at Raley Field to the Oklahoma City Dodgers. 

What catches the googly eyes of coaches, teammates and fans first and foremost with Duggar is his defense. At 6-foot-2, Duggar glides in center field, letting his speed take over. At the crack of the bat, Duggar is hunting down his red-seamed prey. 

Andrew Toles found this out the hard way in the top of the fifth inning. Toles smoked a fastball and lined it to center field with tailing spin to Duggar's backhand side. The gazelle found his dinner. 

With his glove work on display, it was time for Duggar to dig into his tool belt one inning later. This time it was his arm he was showing off. A soft line drive one-hopped him with two outs and a Dodgers runner rounded third base before Duggar took a quick hop, cocked his right arm back and threw a perfect one-hop strike up the third base line for the final out of the inning. 

Defense has always come natural for Duggar. His bat has been behind, but not in a detrimental way. Not by a long shot. Thursday night in Sacramento, his bat was on par with his glove. The offense actually arrived before the defense against the Dodgers. 

In the bottom of the second inning, one inning after lining out to center field, Duggar scored two on a double this time over the head of center fielder Alex Verdugo. And two innings later, Duggar did the same thing, except this time his double to center field scored one run instead of two. Duggar finished the game 2-for-4 with two doubles, three RBI, one walk, and one strikeout. 

Over the last 10 games, Duggar has been on fire for the River Cats. In that span, he is hitting .390 (16-for-41). Through 54 games, Duggar is now batting .277 with a .356 on-base percentage and .423 slugging percentage. Duggar’s two doubles Thursday night brought his season total to 17. He also has three home runs and nine stolen bases. 

If Duggar’s Triple-A numbers were those of an everyday player on the Giants, he would lead the team in stolen bases and triples (3), rank second in doubles — in five less games than Andrew McCutchen — and fourth in on-base percentage.

When the Giants signed Austin Jackson to a two-year deal in the offseason, the thought was that the veteran would serve as a short stopgap before Duggar was ready. But Duggar has dealt with his ups and downs at the plate and the real speed bump in his road to San Francisco has been the emergence of Gorkys Hernandez. 

The wait is certainly winding down and it will come sooner than later for Duggar. And when it’s over, he showed Thursday night in Sacramento that he can put on quite the show.