Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Eye-opening summer

Former Alleghany High standout Robbie Andrews has been making his mark in the Coastal Plain League.

MARTINSVILLE -- In the shadow of a beer stand along the left-field line, there came a voice. A heckler's voice.

"Look at this guy over here!" said the voice, rising above the Tuesday night buzz at Hooker Field. "Listening to his iPod! That's probably the best thing you can do, kid! You ain't getting in the game!"

Robbie Andrews ignored the voice, if he heard it at all.

He continued to bob his head softly and tap his spikes on the bullpen floor. That's what the iPod is for, all right, to blast rap music and Van Halen into his ears and drown out the wise-guy fans on the road.

Andrews certainly didn't want any distractions on a night this important.

Besides, the seventh inning had arrived, which meant it was time to ditch his usual laid-back attitude and get to work.

Time to get focused.

Time to keep a perfect summer alive.

"What kind of stretch is that?" said the voice, as the former Alleghany High School star rose and began to loosen up his rotator cuff with an rubber cord. "Who do you think you are, Jonathan Papelbon?"

Yes. The Coastal Plain League's version.

-- -- -- -- --

Nobody saw this summer coming for Andrews. Not the coaches of the Forest City (N.C.) Owls, who knew they were getting a solid bullpen arm out of Virginia Commonwealth but didn't dream it would be this dominant. Not fans of the Rams, who watched Andrews post a modest 1-1 record and 5.56 ERA as a college junior this year. Not scouts, who passed on Andrews in the major-league amateur draft in June despite his command of an 88-to-91 mph fastball, sharp slider and deceptive change-up.

Andrews himself didn't see it coming, either. Not to this extent.

"I've always known I've had good stuff," said the 6-foot-3, 170-pound right-hander from Covington. "Obviously, it's all clicking right now."

You might say that. Entering Tuesday night's regular-season finale against the Martinsville Mustangs, Andrews had not allowed a run -- or even a walk -- all summer. He'd racked up 25 strikeouts in 18 23 innings, amassed 12 saves and allowed only 10 hits -- nine singles, one double.

"I definitely think about it every time I go out there," Andrews said in the bullpen during the third inning Tuesday. "I've got a little pressure on me, not just to try to keep us in the ballgame and try to get us the win, but I've also got to worry about the streak of not giving up any runs, too."

The Coastal Plain League playoffs begin tonight, with Forest City (46-9) as the top seed. But in statistical terms, Andrews' final hurdle en route to a perfect summer came Tuesday night. The coaches told him to be ready to pitch the ninth if it was a save situation.

Andrews has seen great seasons tarnished by finales before. As a sophomore at Alleghany in 2005, he carried a sub-1.00 ERA into his final start of the season. He promptly gave up six earned runs to Cave Spring.

But on Tuesday, he feared nothing.

"I feel like I can get anybody out right now," Andrews said. "You could throw A-Rod up there and I could get him out."

-- -- -- -- --

Matt Hayes has coached in the Coastal Plain League for five summers. Never has he seen anything like this in the amateur wooden-bat circuit.

"He's the best closer I've ever had in the CPL," said Hayes, an assistant at Indiana during the college season. "And he's got the numbers to prove it."

Both Hayes and Andrews have seen their profiles rise this summer. Hayes has steered his second-year club, based 65 miles west of Charlotte, to the best record in the CPL and a modicum of national notoriety. The prospect Web site had the Owls ranked as the top-performing summer-league team in the nation for four straight weeks until a Cape Cod League club recently bumped them to No. 2.

Meanwhile, that same site recently hailed Andrews as the nation's No. 21 summer-league athlete among "players with prospect value who have performed at a high level."

Andrews figured he had some prospect value in this year's draft, but he followed the picks online and never saw his name. He used that as motivation this summer, eager to open some eyes. And his newfound mental approach -- honed after reading "Mind Gym," a book on sports psychology -- has helped him thrive in tough situations.

His coach is in a good mental state these days, too.

"I've never been so calm to give the ball to somebody," Hayes said. "I really don't have any nerves at the end of a tight game. He fills the zone up, and he's a competitor, and he gets people out. He's meant the world to us.

"He's been an integral part of our baseball team. I wouldn't want to see us without him. He's been that special on the back side of the bullpen. He's been unbelievable."

And as he stretched in the bullpen in the top of the eighth Tuesday night, with the Owls leading 6-4, Andrews looked like he'd get one more chance to prove it.

-- -- -- -- --

"Let's go, Papelbon!" said the voice. "Let's see that meat!"

Andrews, watching the bottom of the eighth unfold through the bullpen fence, didn't look up.

"Hey, No. 7!" came a different voice, this one a female's. "You're hot! What's up?"

Andrews glanced up and gave a little nod and smile.

He is human, after all.

But he was also concerned. Forest City's lead was dissolving. It was down to 6-5, and Martinsville was still threatening.

"Let's do this," said the bullpen catcher, heading into his crouch.

Andrews began to toss lightly. On the field, another Martinsville run came home. Then another. The Owls now trailed 7-6. They'd have to score two in the top of the ninth for Andrews to get a chance at a save.

They wouldn't. Forest City went quietly and in order in the ninth. But as it did, Andrews began to heat up just in case, firing each pitch faster than the last. Hissss .... pop! Hissss ... pop! Hissss ..... pop!

"You're throwing pretty hard, I'll give you that!" came the voice. "Attaboy, Papelbon!"

And with that, Andrews earned his final bit of respect in a perfect summer.

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