On July 20 at the Alaska Baseball League Showcase at Mulcahy Park in Anchorage, Oilers pitcher John Straka struck out four Mat-Su Miners in just two innings of work, hitting 93 mph on the radar gun and drawing the attention of a few scouts.
Not bad for somebody who less than a year and a half ago was having trouble throwing the ball 60 feet, period.
After elbow and shoulder injuries kept the 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander from pitching from May 2009 to April 2011, Straka has used this summer with the Oilers to increase his stock with scouts after not being drafted after his junior season at North Dakota State University.
“They think he has a lot of potential based on his size and arm strength,” Oilers head coach John Stevens said.
Straka’s battle with injuries started at the end of his freshman year, when he went 4-3 in 59 1-3 innings for the Bison, leading the team with a 3.49 ERA. Stevens said Straka’s pitching drew the attention of former Oilers manager Dennis Machado, who wanted to bring Straka to the Oilers then.
But in the fifth inning of Straka’s last college game, he felt a twinge in his throwing elbow. He got an MRI and was diagnosed with a strained ulnar collateral ligament, the famed “Tommy John” ligament in the elbow.
“I took 10 weeks off for rehabilitation and slowly built up over the summer,” Straka said. “I got back for fall ball and my arm felt good and strong, but I hadn’t given it 100 percent effort yet.”
One of Straka’s coaches told him he had to cut a pitch loose at 100 percent to see if the elbow was healed. On his first pitch at 100 percent, he felt a strong twinge in his elbow. He kept throwing, hoping it was just a muscle twinge, but the pain worsened.
He got another MRI in October. This time, the ulnar collateral ligament was torn. Dr. Timothy Kremcheck, the medical director and chief orthopaedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds, repaired Straka’s elbow.
Straka redshirted his sophomore year while rehabbing the elbow. In the fall, he was about to get cleared to face hitters again when he was throwing and felt a twinge in his shoulder.
“I thought, ‘No way,’” he said. “The pain in my shoulder got worse and worse. In September, I could barely throw 60 feet so I got an MRI.”
The MRI didn’t show much, so the injury was diagnosed as tendonitis and Straka took six weeks off before trying to throw in late October. He couldn’t throw 90 feet.
He went to Dr. L.P. McCarty, a shoulder specialist with the Minnesota Twins, and this time the MRI showed a partial tear in the subscapularis, one of the four rotator cuff muscles.
He diligently rehabbed that injury and got back on the mound for the Bison in 2011, going 3-2 with a 3.60 ERA in 35 innings of work.
“I haven’t had a complaint since then,” he said.
Straka pitched in the summer of 2011 for the Thunder Bay Border Cats of the Northwoods League, which, like the ABL, is considered one of the top summer collegiate leagues. There, he went 6-3 with a 2.85 ERA.
That strong summer showing propelled Straka into his junior year, where he went 7-4 in 110 1-3 innings, leading the team with a 2.61 ERA and developing a nasty slider as a No. 2 pitch.
“I felt awesome,” he said. “I didn’t have any type of arm pain or discomfort the entire year. Most days I threw, I didn’t have the soreness I had as a freshman.
“Or maybe I realized the usual soreness isn’t worth complaining about as long as you’re pitching.”
The Bison also had a magical season, beating Oral Roberts 4-3 in the Summit League Tournament to snap Oral Roberts’ 37-game tourney winning streak and reach the title game for the first time in school history. Oral Roberts came back through the losers’ bracket to top the Bison in the title game.
But even after all that, Straka’s name was not called in the draft.
“The (scouts) I talked to, when they did background into the reason why he didn’t go, again it came back to concerns over his arm surgery,” Stevens said.
Straka also said he does not get the exposure pitching for the Bison that he would pitching in southern California.
“I have pitched three years at the Division I level,” he said. “Last year I pitched in the Northwoods, and this year I’ve pitched in Alaska, and faced the top collegiate competition across the nation.
“I have confidence that my ability will translate to the next level. At some point, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to prove myself.”
Straka started strong for the Oilers this year, leading the team in ERA until two recent rocky outings against the Goldpanners and Bucs. He has pitched limited innings after logging so many innings at college this year. Scouts asked Straka if he was ready to sign after the ABL season.
“What I told them was that I was prepared to sign after the draft this year, but after I didn’t get drafted I felt like I have a commitment to go back to NDSU for my senior season,” he said. “I’m looking forward to going back to school. I think we had an awesome year and I’m looking forward to seeing what the program can do.”
That attitude doesn’t surprise those who know Straka. Stevens said he is a mature player from a family that stresses education. Straka, an exercise science major, was on the Summit League Winter/Spring Academic Team this year.
Although Straka’s unflappable nature will most likely keep him from jumping to pro ball this year, Oilers coaches and teammates think it will help him in the long run.
That group includes Oilers pitching coach Dave Stevens, who pitched in the big leagues.
“He likes him. He likes that he’s pretty unflappable,” John Stevens said of his brother. “Dave likes that he has a lot of arm strength. He likes his mound presence and the way he conducts himself.”
Oilers catcher Riley Heinzer and outfielder Josh Delph are roommates with Straka at the house of host parents Aaron and Mya Renken.
“He’s a really smart guy and a nice, caring guy,” Heinzer said. “A couple of times this year, things didn’t go his way. That happens sometimes, but you couldn’t tell by watching him. He stays in control even when things out there are not favorable.”
Heinzer said that is key because the rest of the team feeds off the body language of the pitcher.
“I’m glad to call him a friend,” Heinzer said. “I’m going to keep up with him after we’re done being Oilers. I’m definitely rooting for him.”
Mya Renken, who has been hosting since 2007, said Straka was the first Oilers player to arrive at her house this year. Straka has hiked the Kenai River Trail, toured Homer and fished out of Kachemak Bay for halibut with the Renkens.
“John is here because he made it happen. He arranged it,” Mya Renken said. “I really want to see him do well. I don’t think he has gotten as many chances because he is from Minnesota and North Dakota State.”
Straka said this summer with the Oilers has been extremely helpful in polishing him as a pitcher. He said going on the road and staying with a host family has helped him mature. He said working with an ex-big leaguer like Stevens has helped him pick up not only little tips on how to throw pitches, but also tips on how somebody like Stevens faces the mental side of the game.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity to play up here,” Straka said. “It’s been an awesome summer and I’d like to thank the entire Oilers organization, as well as the host families for putting us up.
“It’s a special opportunity and it wouldn’t be possible without all of them.”