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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on January 10th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 44 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 44

On his way

Just seven months out of high school, Ryan McNeil is well on his way to the big leagues

BY KRISTINA SEWELL

Longtime baseball studs Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones are on their way to leaving the game forever, making room for the next generation of stars. The future looks bright for major league baseball, with the growing amount of baby-faced talent like Mike Trout, Buster Posey, and Clayton Kershaw taking over the league. Greener than the outfield grass, these guys are playing like baseball veterans—and making it look easy.


LIGHTS OUT:
Local baseball star Ryan McNeil spent his first year in the rookie leagues adjusting to 117-degree heat and keeping batters off balance with a fastball that touches the mid-90s.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KEN NICHOLS

One bright spot in the future of the league could come from right here on the Central Coast. Just seven months out of high school, baseball player Ryan McNeil is preparing for his next season of rookie ball. McNeil recently shared with the Sun his experiences as a first-year professional.

McNeil, who doesn’t turn 19 until February, has long had the eyes of college and professional scouts on him. As a high school junior, he was throwing in the low 90s; McNeil finished the season with a 1.70 earned run average and 84 strikeouts. That year, he also led the Nipomo Titans to a Los Padres League championship and a first-round win in the CIF playoffs.

He was then selected to play at two prestigious baseball tournaments: the Area Codes tournament in Long Beach and the Perfect Game All American Classic in San Diego, in which only 46 players across the nation are selected to play.

And let’s not forget that McNeil was ranked 10th best prospect in California by ESPN. Perhaps the most amazing part of his story is that he has done all this without the help of a pitching coach.

“In high school, I decided it would be a better bargaining tool to show what I did on my own,” he said.

McNeil’s mother, Rebecca, was the closest thing he had to a pitching coach; she would film all of her son’s games. He would later watch the film and compare himself to MLB pitchers, trying to emulate what they did.

McNeil, mature and articulate despite his youth, said he always had the feeling he could do something big with baseball. The young star signed with Cal State Long Beach, where he would have played with older brother, Jeff McNeil. But the major league draft changed the course of the younger McNeil’s baseball career. The local player was selected for the Chicago Cubs in the third round of the draft last June. McNeil remembers the day well.

“It was June 5, right before graduation,” he said. “We started negotiating a signing bonus. The process took a couple weeks.”

After graduating from high school wearing a Chicago Cubs hat, McNeil barely had time to enjoy commencement before embarking on a whirlwind journey of negotiating, traveling, and signing. He traveled to Chicago in late June to sign the contract before being sent to Mesa, Ariz., a mecca for baseball farm teams. The young player arrived in his new home-away-from-home on July 4.

“I was on my own during the summer for about three months,” he said, adding that overall it was a good experience.

For those three months, he shared a room with one of his teammates, who was Italian and didn’t speak much English. McNeil enjoyed getting to know all the different players. In fact, adjusting to living in a new state was probably the most difficult part for him.

 “The heat definitely took getting used to. We’d show up to the field at 1 p.m., and it would be 117 degrees. It was brutal,” he said, adding that he eventually adjusted to the weird weather patterns in Arizona.

McNeil adjusted to playing in the rookie league as quickly as he adjusted to the weather. Playing for the AZL Cubs, he made six starts this summer season with two relief appearances. He racked up some impressive pitching stats with 20 effective innings pitched, allowing only three earned runs and finishing with a 1.35 earned run average. McNeil had 18 strikeouts with 10 walks and just one home run.

“They helped me work my way in this summer and took me really slow,” he said.

He said there are some obvious adjustments from high school to rookie league. For example, in high school he didn’t have to try very hard against the competition.

“You can’t get away with [that] as much at this level,” he said. “You have to be consistent.”

He also noted that rookie league practices are a lot more segregated than high school practices, which revolved around team drills. So far, McNeil is pleased with his choice of signing with the Cubs organization.

While he enjoys the thrill of game time and baseball, the life of a rookie player isn’t all that glamorous. The team has four days of practices and games and four days off. During the practice and game days, McNeil said, the team arrives at the field at 1 p.m. to stretch, throw pen, work out, and prepare for games.

Luckily, the team is provided with lunch and dinner during its four-day workweek. It was during the off days that McNeil said things got more desperate.

“On the off days you’re on your own,” he explained. “I pretty much ate Subway every night.”

Even though being on his own could be temptation for trouble, McNeil understands his reason for being there and takes it very seriously.

“You don’t want to do anything stupid; it will look bad on you and the team,” he said. “It’s your job now, and you can’t mess up.”

McNeil, who’s always been aware of his talent, quickly learned last summer that it’s going to be a tough road to the major leagues. In the majors, a good pitcher must be successful 80 percent of the time. Additionally, he’s is coming up against 23-year-old college veterans and competition from all over the world.

He said there are a lot of guys out there with amazing talent, but it’s important to remember they’re all fighting for the same thing.

“I learned from Coach John Stevens in high school that you have to give it your all,” he said. “A lot of kids are trying to make it.”

And although his fastball touches the mid-90s, McNeil learned in his first season that it all comes down to commanding pitches.

“Don’t worry about how hard you’re throwing; execute your pitches,” he said.

McNeil throws a mean slider that he mixes up with a change; he likes to get ahead in the count by using his fastball because he said it makes all of his pitches more effective. For next season, he wants to work on learning another pitch, such as the curve.

This last season also taught McNeil the value of trusting in his team.

“In high school, I thought strikeouts were the only way to get outs,” he said. “I learned to let my defense help me out.”

McNeil recently returned to Arizona to begin preparing for the 2013 season with the AZL Cubs. This month, he’s scheduled to attend an invitational workout camp for three weeks. As for the upcoming season, he said he wants to keep working his way up and prove to the Cubs he has what it takes. If all goes well, he hopes to be pitching for the Cubs Single A team, the Boise Hawks, by next year.

Although signing with the Cubs fulfilled a dream he’s held since age 4, McNeil said he doesn’t want to get too settled.

“I’m happy I’ve got to this point, but I haven’t made it yet,” he said. “I don’t want to be comfortable with where I’m at until I’m with the pitchers in the bigs.”

Staff Writer Kristina Sewell has thrown her share of strike outs. Contact her at ksewell@santamariasun.com.