May 23, 2009
By David Driver
For the Dayton Daily News
Used with permission
The day after his major-league debut, former University of Dayton pitcher Craig Stammen had lunch at a downtown Washington restaurant with his parents, brother, uncle and grandmother.
He stayed with them until around noon, which is around the time it sunk in that he had made it to the big leagues. So what made him realize he was in The Show?
“The fact that I got to come back today,” Stammen said Friday, May 22, dressing at his locker in the spacious Washington clubhouse in Nationals Park.
The right-handed starter from Versailles High School, who pitched into the seventh inning here Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, may be staying with the Nationals for awhile. Washington manager Manny Acta was asked before Friday’s game against Baltimore if Stammen, who began the 2008 season in the bullpen for a Class A team, had earned another start.
“I think so, yeah,” Acta said.
Barring any rainouts and if Washington keeps its starting rotation intact, that would mean Stammen, 25, would take the mound Tuesday at the new Citi Field in New York to face the Mets.
“I’m still here. That is what I am planning on,” said Stammen, who had a Flyers baseball hat in his locker. “I am going on that assumption.”
Stammen said he had 62 relatives, friends and UD alums attend his debut. He retired the first three Pirates on 15 pitches and the next three on nine. He set down the first 12 batters before allowing a run in the fifth and hitting a rough spot in the seventh.
“You see a guy like him that throws the ball downhill and wants to be down in the zone, that kind of stands out,” Nationals catcher Josh Bard said. “He has a strong young body, and I think he has a bright future.”
Stammen lasted 61/3 innings and allowed four runs (all earned) and four hits with a walk and three strikeouts. He threw 85 pitches and now has a big-league ERA of 5.68, but the Nats rallied for two runs in the last of the eighth and won 5-4 to break a seven-game losing streak. Stammen did not figure in the decision.
“They always told me that I’d be a big-league pitcher,” Stammen said after the game. “Sometimes you don’t believe that when you’re all the way in Class A ball. I had a blast. I know my goal is to come out here and have fun. That’s what happened. I struggled in the seventh inning, but it was a lot of fun.”
Stammen began the season as the 20th-ranked prospect in the Washington system, according to Baseball America. He was not even on the 40-man roster until he was promoted to the majors.
His first manager in pro ball, Bobby Williams, is now director of player development for Washington. After Stammen was signed in 2005 he reported to Vermont of the New York-Penn League, where he went 4-5 with an 4.06 ERA in 13 games, seven of them starts.
“This is pretty special for me. I was his first manager,” Williams said of Stammen, who was drafted in the 12th round of the 2005 first-year player draft. “I first saw a good-looking player with good size and a good arm. I am really excited for him. He has a tremendous work ethic. He is a competitor.”
Washington starter John Lannan, who was drafted in the 11th round that year out of Siena, also made his debut with Vermont in 2005, going 3-5 with a 5.26 ERA in 14 games.
“Stammen was probably the better pitcher in 2005,” Williams said.
Both pitchers were promoted to low Class A Savannah in the South Atlantic League in 2006, but Lannan progressed faster, made his major-league debut in 2007. He entered this season with 37 career big-league starts.
So what took Stammen an extra two years to reach the majors? For one, he had knee trouble in 2007 and began the 2008 season pitching out of the bullpen for high Class A Potomac in the Carolina League. There he worked with pitching coach Randy Tomlin, who pitched for the Pirates in the 1990s and was promoted to pitching coach for the Nationals Class AA team this year in Harrisburg, Pa.
“He did some good things with my mechanics,” Stammen said of Tomlin.
“Sometimes you have to go backwards before you can go forwards. That is what happened with me.”
Stammen had knee surgery after the 2007 season and said he did not throw well at spring training in 2008. So he began the year in the bullpen for the team in Woodbridge, Va., about 30 miles south of the nation’s capital.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Stammen said of not making the Potomac rotation.
He eventually joined the Potomac rotation last year and earned promotions to Class AA Harrisburg of the Eastern League, then the Class AAA Columbus Clippers of the International League.
Stammen, 25, made seven starts this season for the Syracuse Chiefs, going 4-2 with a 1.80 ERA for the Nationals’ new Class AAA affiliate.
Spin Williams (no relation to Bobby) is the roving pitching coordinator for the Nationals and joined the ballclub in 2005, the same year Stammen was drafted.
“He really got comfortable this spring with his two-seam fastball. He also has a lot more sink on his fastball,” Spin Williams said.
Stammen throws his fastball between 88 and 92 mph and also has a curve and changeup.
“It has worked out for him,” Spin Williams said. “The main thing is he used to pitch away from contact. Now he is pitching to contact.”
That means Stammen can get outs quicker with ground balls instead of relying on strikeouts.
“Now he is trusting his stuff,” Spin Williams said. “It takes time for some guys.”