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September 11, 2009

From Blacksburg to the Big Leagues

By: Matt Kovatch

Former Hokie Wyatt Toregas makes good on his goal of playing in the majors

Wyatt ToregasPhoto credit Dan Mendlik, Cleveland Indians

Wyatt Toregas had the game of his young life on April 21, 2002, a BIG EAST Conference game at Georgetown. Then a freshman utility player for Virginia Tech’s baseball team, he started in right field and went a jaw-dropping 7-for-9 with three doubles and five runs scored. The three doubles were a school record at the time, and the nine at-bats still stand as the highest single-game total for a Hokie.

Unfortunately, Toregas’ effort went largely unnoticed because of teammate Brad Bauder’s performance, one that included eight hits in eight trips to the plate, four home runs, seven runs scored and 14 runs batted in. Yes, the Hokies took the Hoyas to the woodshed that day, setting all kinds of records in an ugly, 35-4 victory.

But in retrospect, that day was unique for Toregas in another way. He would go on to become Tech’s star catcher in his sophomore and junior seasons, but that day at Georgetown was the only time he ever caught pitcher Joe Saunders in a game. Saunders, whose success has been well documented after he represented the Angels in last year’s Major League Baseball all-star game and led them to the playoffs, was in the midst of a dominating junior season before getting selected 12th overall in that summer’s first-year player draft. The lefty tossed six innings from the mound that day, with Toregas moving behind the dish for the final five frames after the game got out of hand.

The battery combination only lasted two innings, but fast-forward seven years and a few months, and Toregas has joined Saunders in a much more exclusive club – the major league ranks. When the Cleveland Indians, who drafted Toregas out of Tech with a 24th-round pick in 2004, called the 26-year-old up to the show on July 31, they effectively doubled Tech’s alumni presence in the majors. (Kevin Barker has since joined the ranks, thanks to his recent summoning by the Cincinnati Reds.)

Though he’s still got plenty of years ahead of him in his baseball career, Toregas was never on the fast track to the majors. He’s paid his dues over the course of three years in college and five and a half years in the minors.

Undrafted out of South Lakes High School in northern Virginia, Toregas had no problem heading to Virginia Tech. He had quickly become a fan thanks to the football team’s success in 1999 and 2000.

“They had Michael Vick and Lee Suggs and Andre Davis, and the defense was always really good, so I got into watching them on TV,” Toregas remembered. “When I got the offer to go play there, it was automatic. I was going.”

He wasted no time upon showing up in Blacksburg, finishing second on the team in hitting with a .347 average as a rookie, earning honorable mention freshman All-America honors in the process. The Ashburn, Va., product then earned first-team All-BIG EAST honors as a sophomore after hitting .319 with 10 home runs and a team-high 60 runs batted in. Though his hitting production tapered off in his junior season, the Indians had already taken notice, and he was soon off to begin his professional career with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Niles, Ohio) in short-season Single-A in 2004.

Slowly but surely, Toregas climbed the baseball ladder over the next four years, making all the stops in obscure minor-league towns along the way.

“I’ve always had the goal of making it to the big leagues,” Toregas said. “But it’s a roller coaster ride because you play so many games and you play every day. It’s weird because you’ll have stretches where you play poorly and you’re like, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ But then you have stretches where you play really well and it kind of motivates you and you’re like, ‘Alright, I’m doing it.’”

Granted, Toregas took very few steps backward in his journey, earning all-star nods at the Single-, Double- and Triple-A levels, but if there was ever a season of concern, it was 2008.

The catcher was placed on the Indians’ 40-man roster prior to the season and spent the first 50 games at Triple-A Buffalo, ideally the last stop in his march to the majors. But he was slumping all spring, hitting only .219 at the time of his next transaction. This time, though, it was an unfamiliar demotion, with Toregas getting sent back down to Double-A Akron, where he had spent much of the previous two seasons.

Wyatt Toregas was always a great defensive catcher in his days at Tech, but a career-high 10 homers and 60 RBI earned him first-team ALL-BIG EAST honors as a sophomore.

“That was when I had the hardest time because I had never really failed up until that point,” Toregas admitted. “And at the time, I was looking at it as failure. But it motivated me to work harder. I knew I wanted to do it, and I knew I could make it. Though I got sent down, I worked twice as hard in Akron to get back to where I needed to be.”

Though it was a trying time for Toregas professionally, the trip back to Akron had more in store for him personally. He had met a young woman named Holly during his first stint with the Aeros in 2006, and a relationship was sprung. Toregas spent his entire 2007 campaign in Akron, but when he unexpectedly returned in 2008, it was Holly and her family who helped ease the adjustment.

“When I went down [to Akron], there were only about three months left in the season, so I didn’t really want to get an apartment,” Toregas said. “But Holly’s parents were actually nice enough to put me up. It was definitely nice because Holly was there every day, so I didn’t have to go home and think about the game. I’d play the game and work hard, but when the game was over, I’d go home and just let it go.”

The experience paid off in more ways than one. With a clear mind, Toregas started raking at the plate, hitting nearly .300 with 12 homers and 35 RBI over the final 47 games. But maybe more importantly, his connection with Holly reached the point to where the two were married this past January.

So Toregas entered the 2009 season with a new wife and new confidence at the plate. But he was also headed to a new town. The Columbus Clippers had been the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals the previous two seasons, but as often happens in the minors, affiliations were juggled around and the Indians’ Triple-A club was no longer in Buffalo, where Toregas has struggled in 2008. Rather, he was headed to nearby Columbus.

Toregas didn’t spend much time in Ohio’s capital city, however. He batted .284 with seven home runs and 29 RBI in 60 games for the Clippers and was named to the International League all-star team. As the major league trade deadline approached, it was common knowledge that, with the Indians out of contention in the American League Central, they were shopping their most valuable commodities. Former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee was already gone to the Phillies, and all-star catcher Victor Martinez, Toregas’ major road block in his path to Cleveland, was apparently the next to go.

So as Toregas sat in a Pennsylvania hotel room on the day of the trading deadline, preparing for a game against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, he paid special attention to the TV.

“I saw the talk all over the TV about Victor Martinez getting traded [to the Red Sox],” Toregas recalled. “I knew that I was an option [to be called up to fill Martinez’s roster spot], but I didn’t know exactly what the Indians would do. But when I got to the field that day, my name wasn’t on the roster. My manager called me in and said, ‘You’re going up.’ It was an overwhelming sense of joy. Everything I had worked for was finally going to pay off. It’s been a long road – I spent five-plus years in the minors. You see guys get called up and you know you can play there, but when you finally get the call, it makes it all worth it.”

With one lifelong dream checked off of his list, Toregas boarded a plane to Cleveland ready to check off another. He didn’t have to wait long, as he was penciled into the lineup the very next day against the Detroit Tigers and recorded a hit – a line-drive single to left field – in his very first at-bat.

He took advantage of his first opportunity, but as backup catcher – and a rookie, no less – opportunities come few and far between. As of Sept. 1, Toregas had appeared in just 11 games over the course of a month, playing, on average, once every three or four days.

“That’s probably the biggest adjustment that I’ve had to make,” Toregas said of his unfamiliar backup role. “It’s easier to stay sharp when you play every day because the game keeps you right where you need to be. If you’re facing 94 mile-per-hour fastballs every day or trying to catch 91 mile-per-hour sinkers every day, you’re going to get used to it. But when you only see a guy throw max effort once every five days, it’s tough to keep up with it. It’s definitely been the hardest part about the game.”

But Toregas has always been a hard worker, and that’s left him well equipped to handle the situation. The Indians quickly noticed that.

''Wyatt's handled himself well in a very tough position, coming up here [battling for a spot] in the big leagues,'' Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said in an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal. ''He has some presence behind home plate, he's received well and he's been fundamentally sound. His bat has also really improved, although that's secondary. He's handled the pitching staff and he's prepared well. We've seen a lot of good things in a short time.''

The impressions that Toregas has made have been no accident. There are plenty of chances to get your work in on “off” days, and he rarely lets one slip by.

“On the days that I don’t play, I try to catch the side bullpens,” Toregas explained. “It’s tough on the road, but at home, I try to catch the starting pitchers on their off days so I get to see them. They’re not going 100 percent, but that’s the best I can do. I basically treat the bullpen sessions like I would treat the game. If there’s a ball in the dirt, I’m blocking it. I’ll simulate some throws to second base – I won’t actually throw the ball, but I’ll work on getting my footwork set.

“With hitting, I try to get in early with the hitting coach, get in the cage and get about 100 swings. And you’ve got to treat batting practice like a game, simulating situations and hitting balls to certain spots. The days that I don’t play are almost harder than the days that I do play.”

On a recent road trip, Toregas got the rare chance to make two starts in three days, and because of where he did it, Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, he quickly scratched another dream off of his list.

“It was definitely fun because my dad used to take me there when I was younger,” the childhood Orioles fan said of Camden Yards. “We’d come to see guys like Albert Belle and Cal Ripken, and now that I’m playing on the same field that I used to watch them, it’s kind of hard to believe.”

Toregas’ friends and family turned out for the games in Baltimore, including former Tech teammates Chris Stanton and Brett Cory, with whom Toregas said he keeps in close contact. He said he also keeps in touch with former Hokie David Londrey, and that all three, whom he lived with while at Tech, keep him up to date on Hokie sports. (In case you were wondering, Toregas is also worried about Darren Evans’ injury.)

In exchange, Toregas gets to fill his friends in on life as a big leaguer. One might think that he’s having the time of his life, and in a way, he is. But he’s never quick to forget his days in Blacksburg, many of which he looks back on fondly.

“Without a doubt, I loved my time at Tech,” he said. “As you know, it’s a beautiful campus. There are a lot of people there and a lot of things to do. We had fun all the time there, man. My buddies and I would always have something going on, whether it was a football game, a night on the town or even just a card game. It was the time of my life, for sure.”


(As of Sept. 1)

Joe Saunders (SP) – Saunders had a banner year in 2008, making the MLB all-star game and pitching for the Angels in the playoffs, but he hasn’t had quite the same success in 2009. Despite a short stint on the DL with a sore shoulder, the 2002 first-round pick owns a respectable 11-7 record, but his ERA of 5.02 is over a point and a half higher than his career-best 3.41 in 2008. Saunders pitched a complete game shutout on May 9 against Kansas City, the first of his career.

Kevin Barker (1B) – Barker was drafted by the Brewers in 1996 and made his big league debut in 1999, but has spent most of his time toiling in the minors since then. The former Tech All-American played most of this season with the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate Louisville Bats, hitting .285 with 22 homers and 69 RBI, before getting called up to Cincinnati on Aug. 14. Serving mostly as a pinch-hitter with the Reds, Barker has picked up five hits in 12 at-bats.

Ian Ostlund (RP) – Ostlund dominated in 2008 for the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate Toledo Mud Hens before signing a minor league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent in the offseason. He’s tossed 51.1 innings in 22 games for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds and earned a 2-0 record, but his ERA sits at a lofty 5.96. The 2001 34th-round draft choice has struck out 43 and walked 18.

Warren Schaeffer (SS) – Always solid with the glove, Schaeffer has struggled with the bat this season with the Modesto Nuts, the advanced Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. The 2007 Tech alum has hit just .197 in 65 games this season, though he’s turned it on with a .421 average in August.

Steve Bumbry (OF) – Selected by the Baltimore Orioles this past June, Bumbry struggled with injuries throughout his first two months with the short-season Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds. He launched a homer in his first professional game, and since then, has added seven doubles and three triples with a .229 average in 40 games played.

Rhett Ballard (RP) – Selected by the Rockies this past June, Ballard has turned in an impressive season for the short-season Single-A Tri-City Dust Devils. In 24 appearances, he’s gone 4-1 with a 2.04 ERA and one save. He’s struck out 36 batters in 39.2 innings.