Phillies prospect Zach Warren improvises, chases big-league dream in backyard setting

Phillies prospect Zach Warren improvises, chases big-league dream in backyard setting

There's a shed here and a stack of firewood over there. A few feet away, a patch of ground has been turned over for a garden. Off in the distance, a tulip tree is beginning to bloom. Birds are chirping, a dog is running about and the sound of kids playing can be heard from a neighboring yard as the sun peeks out from behind the clouds on a crisp spring afternoon.

For the better part of the previous two months, Phillies pitching prospect Zach Warren had been going through his daily workouts at a state-of-the-art baseball training facility in Clearwater, Florida, alongside dozens of teammates and under the supervision of a host of coaches and athletic trainers.

But now, with the baseball world on hold because of the coronavirus health crisis, it's just him, a dozen baseballs and a couple of nets in a backyard about 40 miles from Citizens Bank Park.

"It's a pretty good setup," the tall lefty said as he began to fire balls into one of the nets.

Actually, Warren was not alone as he went through an hourlong workout earlier this week that included stretching, running and throwing. His fiancée, Sarah Durband, and the couple's three-year-old redbone coonhound, Bennett, looked on from the side and provided moral support. Zach and Sarah have a fall wedding planned. In the meantime, they are living with her parents in Chester County. 

The couple began dating during their time at the University of Tennessee. At first, Sarah didn't know much about baseball. 

"I didn't even know there was a difference between a ball and a strike," she said. 

But after watching Zach pitch first for the Vols and in the Phillies minor league system the last three seasons, she's developed an eye for the game.

"She's come a long way," Zach said with a laugh. "Now, I'll give up a hit and she'll say, 'Why would you throw that pitch?' "

Sounds like Sarah has a future as a sportswriter.

In reality, she's studying for her master's degree in education as Zach chases his dream of being a major leaguer with the team he grew up rooting for as a kid in Vineland, New Jersey. Zach was a standout at St. Augustine Prep before moving on to Tennessee, where he was selected by the Phillies in the 14th round of the 2017 draft. He's coming off two strong seasons as a late-game reliever at the Single A level and at age 23 appears ticketed for an important spot in the bullpen at Double A Reading — whenever the season gets going.

Zach's dreams of pitching in the majors started in the backyard and they're right back there now. All over baseball, minor- and major-league pitchers are trying to keep their arms limber in similar settings while they wait to see when the game will crank up again.

Warren is a legitimate prospect with a power arm and strikeout stuff. His work the last two seasons earned him an invite to major-league camp this spring. He enjoyed his monthlong taste of big-league life and was able to pick the brains of pitchers who'd walked the miles he hopes to walk. He was particularly struck by some advice on the art of pitch location that fellow reliever Anthony Swarzak, a veteran of 10 big-league seasons, offered one day.

"He told me his career changed when he stopped trying to throw strikes and started trying to throw executed balls," Warren said.

Warren struck out the side against Baltimore in his first outing of the spring and earned praise from Joe Girardi.

"His ball kind of explodes," the manager said.

But Warren gave up three runs against the Braves in his next outing. He struggled with his breaking ball in that game, but recently rediscovered his feel for the pitch during his backyard workouts. 

"Sometimes it's kind of nice to just come out here and throw into a net and really work on things," he said. "I can experiment and play around with grips and see how it comes out of my hand. It really clicked the other day. I feel like I got a lot of stuff figured out and the ball is doing what I want it to."

Former Phillies pitcher and current broadcaster Larry Andersen would be thrilled to hear about Warren's bit of self-help. Andersen came up in a time when there weren't pitching coaches at every level in the minors and he believes that sometimes a pitcher can benefit by being his own coach and solving his own issues.

Warren had been reassigned to minor-league camp when Major League Baseball halted spring training two weeks ago. The Phillies paid travel costs for their minor-leaguers to get home. (The matter of in-season pay for minor leaguers has yet to be worked out.) Zach and Sarah drove from Clearwater to her folks' home in Chester County with an overnight stop in South Carolina. Zach found a field and a fence to do his stretching and throwing program before they jumped back on the road. That's dedication. 

Pitchers were sent home with a dozen balls and a throwing plan and they receive a phone call from a team official three times a week.

"They told us to just try to maintain where you are," Warren said. "No bullpens. Throw three or four times a week. Long toss every other day."

Without a throwing partner, Warren needed to get creative. He and Sarah visited Dick's Sporting Goods and purchased two nets. They do the job.

Warren's workouts are disciplined. He wears red spikes and red Phillies gear. He starts with stretching and band work, "arm care" as it's called.

"When I was in high school and college, I'd come out, do a couple of arm circles and be ready to go," he said with a laugh. "Once I started with the Phillies and they got us on this routine, I don't feel loose or ready to go at all until I do everything, my shoulder, my core.

"Once I started this regimented arm care, my velocity shot up quickly so I stuck with it. It really makes an incredible difference."

After stretching, Warren moves on to throwing — working his way back to about 90 feet — and finishes with some sprints. It was 50 degrees when he started a workout earlier this week. By the end of the workout, it was 59 degrees and he was sweating. He had to ditch his 76ers winter cap.

Warren will keep doing this daily routine as long as he needs to. Like everyone else, he can't wait for some baseball normalcy, but health and safety first.

"That's what's most important," he said.

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The OG Phillie Phanatic wants Major League Baseball to lighten up

The OG Phillie Phanatic wants Major League Baseball to lighten up

Dave Raymond, the OG Phillie Phanatic, was alarmed when he read the news earlier this week.

No Mascots!

Has Major League Baseball lost its mind?

Or worse, its sense of humor?

Don’t misunderstand, Raymond, the man who breathed life into that big ball of green fur from the time it debuted in 1978 until 1993, is all for ridding the world of this nasty coronavirus beast. He’s all for social distancing, frequent handwashing and everything else that goes with protecting folks from getting sick. He knows how serious this thing is.

And that’s why he’s hoping that MLB won’t follow through on its plan to ban mascots from games when and if the sport comes back with a proposed 82-game schedule in July.

“I understand that only essential personnel can physically be at the games,” Raymond said Friday. “But I would argue that in these serious times mascots are more essential than ever.”

After shedding the Phanatic’s fur and handing the keys to the ATV to the equally brilliant Tom Burgoyne 26 years ago, Raymond dedicated his professional life to the concept of fun. It’s serious business. Raymond has owned and operated companies that help professional teams and college sports programs develop mascots/brands. He has trained mascots and helped found a mascot Hall of Fame. His current focus is motivational speaking. Everything is centered around the Power of Fun — which just so happens to be the title of his book — and how it can make a difference in people’s lives.

In these trying times when lives have been lost, when people have gotten sick and when the world has wrapped a mask around its face and gone into quarantine, Raymond is preaching louder than ever about the importance of a little fun and the respite it can offer in difficult times.

“It’s a scientific fact that laughing helps a person emotionally and physically,” he said.

That’s why he believes mascots need to have their place in baseball’s return.

“Mascots are a reflection of the fans’ heart and soul and part of the reason fans get emotionally connected to their teams,” he said. “During this time, we need the connection they provide more than ever. I understand that fans can’t be in the stadiums, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still engage them through mascots and character brands. Baseball needs to be creative and carve out space for entertainment.”

Raymond proposes that mascots be featured on television broadcasts when the game returns. It would be kind of funny to see a camera pan over to the Phanatic sitting all alone in section 305. Maybe even have Bobby Vinton’s Mr. Lonely play in the background.

If the Phanatic absolutely, positively cannot be in the ballpark, then he could be featured through technology and social media. Raymond proposed live streaming the Phanatic, wherever he might be, watching the game. Run it across social media platforms and have fans follow along. Raymond also proposed prerecording videos that could feature fans playing catch with the final throw landing in the Phanatic’s glove as he stands on the field. Another idea: Replace the Phanatic’s middle-of-the-fifth-inning dance skit with a live Zoom call on Phanavision and let fans log in. He’d like to see this stuff in every major league city.

“I understand it’s safety first, but there’s still room to lighten things up a little,” Raymond said.

Raymond is sharing this message with mascots who have been sidelined all over the country, from the major leagues to the minor leagues to the colleges. He has personally tutored many of them. They are his friends. Some have been furloughed from their jobs.

“It’s really devastating,” he said.

On Tuesday, Raymond will host a Zoom webinar for mascots and officials from teams, leagues and colleges that he has worked with over the years. It’s titled What The Heck Should My Mascot Do Now?

For Dave Raymond, the answer is simple:

Follow the rules, but by all means, be creative, embrace technology and mascot on.

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Phillies Talk podcast: Locations, opponents, details on Spring Training II


Phillies Talk podcast: Locations, opponents, details on Spring Training II

On today's Phillies Talk podcast, Jim Salisbury and I discussed what Spring Training II could look like amid Jim's report that the Phillies will likely get to stay home and train in South Philadelphia.

• Benefits of having camp at home.

• Who could Phillies play in Spring Training II?

• What happens to the minor-leaguers? Will there even be a minor-league season?

• Just how big could regular-season rosters get?

• Spencer Howard will likely put pressure on Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez.

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