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.