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Globe West Diamond Notes

‘A total culture shock’

Twins take hurler to minors in Tenn.

Ryan O’Rourke, who played for St. John’s of Shrewsbury and Merrimack College, pitches for the rookie-level Appalachian League club, the Elizabethton Twins. Ryan O’Rourke, who played for St. John’s of Shrewsbury and Merrimack College, pitches for the rookie-level Appalachian League club, the Elizabethton Twins.
By Jeff Schaible
July 11, 2010

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The stories, Ryan O’Rourke has come to learn, are true. The life of a minor league baseball player is, indeed, harder than it looks — a “total culture shock,’’ he said, both on the field and off.

The former St. John’s of Shrewsbury and Merrimack College stalwart is growing accustomed to the rigors of playing for a living, in a small town in northeast Tennessee roughly 800 miles from home.

“It’s been a blur,’’ said O’Rourke. “And it’s a challenge. Every day is something new. On the field and off, it’s been a trip — a whole lot different than anything I’ve experienced before. But every day in pro ball is a pretty good day.’’

A 6-foot-3, 217-pound lefthander, O’Rourke was selected in the 13th round of Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft by the Minnesota Twins last month after a stellar senior season in which he posted a 1.25 earned run average, a Northeast-10 Conference-best .158 opposing batting average, and set a school-record with 93 strikeouts over 79 innings.

He quickly signed and has made three starts for his rookie-level Appalachian League club, the Elizabethton Twins. Though he hasn’t yet figured into a decision, he’s pitched well, with a 2.70 ERA over 16.2 innings, 13 strikeouts and three walks. In his last outing, a Fourth of July start against the Burlington Royals (North Carolina), O’Rourke allowed just one run over seven innings.

“I am starting to feel comfortable out there,’’ said O’Rourke. “There’s a lot going on. A lot of adjustments. A lot of firsts.’’

One of those firsts came in his second start. In the fifth inning of a June 29 matchup with the Danville Braves, O’Rourke made his exit a bit prematurely.

“There was a play at the plate and a bit of a collision,’’ said O’Rourke. “Our catcher [Buddy Monroe] tagged the guy out and the two got into it a bit. They were exchanging words, and I interjected a little. Not too much. I maybe said a sentence. As I was walking back to the mound the crowd cheered. I’d been thrown out.

“I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ That’s never happened before. It was a ‘welcome to pro ball’ kind of moment.’’

It’s that kind of intensity that Merrimack coach Joe Sarno believes will serve his former pitcher well at the professional level, potentially as a high-pressure reliever. Though O’Rourke is presently starting, his future is likely in the bullpen.

“I could see him sticking as a starter, but know that his demeanor would play out of the pen,’’ said Sarno. “He’s a bear on the mound, very intense. In a good way, he’s nuts.’’

O’Rourke’s instruction began immediately after joining the organization. Drafted on Tuesday, June 8, and signed two days later, he was in Fort Myers, Fla., that Sunday for orientation.

After spending a week at the Twins’ spring training, he drove up to Elizabethton to join his new teammates. Already, his new coaches are tinkering.

“They’ve wanted me to use my arm a little more and I’ve switched to the other side of the rubber, to the left side, to add a little more deception and make it tougher on lefties. They’re pretty minor things, but making big improvements so far.’’

The coaches have been working to refine his change-up, previously a “show me’’ offering in a five-pitch arsenal. O’Rourke throws a four-seam fastball in the low 90s, a two-seamer, a slider, and a curve. He’s been told the change-up will be a necessary weapon against advanced lefty hitters.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment is the one taking place off the diamond, to long road trips and his new home in northeast Tennessee — a long way from Central Massachusetts, geographically and culturally.

“It’s a small town, and it’s nothing like what I’m used to,’’ said O’Rourke. “Sometimes it feels really, really weird, but I think I’m getting used to it.

“Everything seems kind of slowed down. They’re very big on religion. There are no bars, no beer at games. It’s different.

“But everyone’s real nice, and they go the extra mile for you . . . after they remind me that I’m the one with the funny accent.’’

On the road, thus far he’s been lucky.

“So far so good, but I’ve heard some horror stories,’’ said O’Rourke. “The places have all been nice. Some of my teammates who have been around a bit more, they can’t say the same.

“It’s weird though, living out of my Minnesota Twins suitcase with a couple shirts and a couple pairs of underwear. A couple nights here, then moving on.

“It’s great though. I get to do this every day. Some people have to wake up and go to real jobs, I get to play baseball. I couldn’t ask for anything better.’’

Milford honor ‘humbles’ ex-coach Piergustavo
Prior to a thrilling walk-off win over Zone 4 leader East Side last week, Milford Legion honored its former coach, Rich Piergustavo, who spent 15 years guiding Post 59 to eight state tournaments, a state title, and a regional title in 2001, earning a trip to the World Series in Yakima, Wash.

“I’m truly humbled that the Legion organization decided to do all this,’’ said Piergustavo, who amassed a 321-121 career record and is athletic director at Milford High. “I’m very grateful. We won more than we lost, and it was a great 15 summers.

More Legion highlights
Pressed into service thanks to a brutal stretch of 11 games in 10 days, Framingham Post 74 hurler Brett Siflinger made his first start of the season in a Fourth of July matchup with Milford. He delivered with a one-hit complete game, striking out seven. Framingham, in fourth place in District 4, has sewn up a playoff berth. . . .

After a 10-1 start, Newton Post 440 dropped four of its next five games and coach Manny Connerney couldn’t hide his disappointment following a 10-5 loss to Zone A-leader Lowell on Wednesday. Newton, which entered the contest sharing the Zone B lead with Weston, committed four errors, allowed four stolen bases, and stranded nine runners on base.

“We still have high hopes, but we can forget it if we keep playing like that,” said Connerney.

The following night, Newton (22 points) fell 8-7 to Weston (24 points) and was in danger of not qualifying for the playoffs.

Jeff Schaible can be reached at jeff.schaible@gmail.com.

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