Slaught machine: Peninsula pitcher keys Oilers staff

Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009

Only a freshman, University of California, Irvine pitcher Crosby Slaught inherited two runners when he took the mound with two outs in the fifth inning of the third and decisive game of the 2008 Baton Rouge Super Regional at Louisiana State University.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Peninsula Oilers pitcher Crosby Slaught works the third inning of Saturday's first game against the Mat-Su Miners.

With 8,173 purple-and-gold-clad fans screaming in the stands just more than a year ago, it was then the largest crowd in Alex Box Stadium history.

Slaught dubbed his performance as "nothing spectacular." He didn't go into specifics.

"It was just an experience to get in there, really," said Slaught, now a starter for the Peninsula Oilers. "I was a little nervous. I had never thrown with a crowd like that before. So it was definitely an experience playing there at LSU.

"They've got some amazing fans there. It was definitely way different than West Coast baseball."

Even farther from the Alaska Baseball League.

Slaught, however, has had little trouble adjusting to playing on the Last Frontier.

Following a rough debut on the summer solstice, Slaught has been the driving force behind the ABL's top pitching staff, having allowed merely one run in his last 22 innings of work entering his start on Saturday.

"It's not a secret. He's really been doing a good job," said Peninsula pitching coach Brandon Hennessey. "He's just in a groove. And I hope he stays in it."

That's what the 20-year-old is accustomed to.

Fresh off a dazzling season with the Anteaters, going 8-0 in 16 appearances with a 4.62 ERA, Slaught, who grew up a couple of hours north in Santa Barbara, was the Sunday starter for a UC Irvine team that won the Big West with a 22-2 mark before going 2-2 in the postseason and being eliminated earlier than they had expected.

"We definitely thought we were going to go further," he said. "Expectations were high after the last two years for our team."

The season prior to his arrival on campus -- one he admitted he didn't even know existed before visiting it -- Irvine advanced to the College World Series for the first time in program history and then came within two outs of heading back last June, winning the opener against the Tigers before dropping what would have been the clincher when LSU scored five times in the ninth inning of Game 2.

The ensuing night, Slaught made his first appearance of the series.

It was a night he's likely never to forget. Unless he chooses to.

Already trailing 10-2, Slaught walked the first two batters he faced, forcing home a run, and then surrendered a two-run single and a two-run double before catching the final batter looking at strike three.

In all, the youngster threw 19 pitches to five batters and was charged with three runs, although five crossed on his watch, as the Anteaters were denied a trip the World Series after a gut-wrenching 21-7 loss.

Slaught has seen highlights of that game, twice turning to to do so.

"So close yet so far away," he laughed. "It wasn't close.

"I've actually watched the tapes of that and got kind of upset about it. Just the whole game in general. It kind of gets you pumped up."

It obviously worked this past season in California and has carried over to Alaska, too.

Boasting a team-best 1.38 ERA and a 1-1 mark in six appearances before Saturday, Slaught had struck out 14 and walked only seven.

At first, though, it seemed as if the transition would be rougher than expected when he gave up four runs in just two innings in a 9-2 loss to the Anchorage Bucs.

"Just didn't have my best stuff," he said. "Thought I was ready mentally, but didn't feel right."

Suffering from a sore shoulder, the lanky right-hander skipped his next start, visited a physical therapist and nursed his arm before finally throwing another bullpen session.

Slaught then returned to action on June 29 and threw one scoreless inning of relief.

He was back.

"I feel like some of my stuff's getting better than it was in college," he said. "My breaking ball, slider is definitely a lot better than it was in college I feel like."

Opponents would likely agree.

He threw six innings of one-hit ball on July 2, followed that five days later with a sterling eight-inning, four-hit shutout at Mat-Su and capped this torrid stretch with a 2-1 win over the Goldpanners on Monday, when he allowed the lone run of this streak on five hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

However, Slaught suffered a minor hiccup during his start on Saturday, allowing five runs -- four earned -- on six hits and a walk over just four troublesome innings.

Hennessey cited one reason for his hurler's success as being his 6-foot-5, 195-pound frame, from which he is able to stay on top of his pitches, benefiting from a downward plane.

"Instead of the ball kind of coming in flat to hitters, he actually gets a downward angle on his pitches," he explained. "It helps him stay on his curveball and his off-speed pitches and that's one part of his game that he just has naturally.

"(That's) something, as a pitching coach, that you try to teach guys to do, but he does it naturally," Hennessey added. "I think it's going to continue to make him successful throughout the rest of his career."

His deceiving changeup is another component to his success. While his fastball clocks in around 88 to 90 mph, Slaught's changeup accentuates his heater even more.

"He's got a great changeup and pitchers that have great changeups like he does, makes his fastball look faster," Hennessey said. "You throw a changeup at a certain speed and his fastball's 88 miles an hour on the gun, but you get hitters up there that see changeup, changeup, his fastball looks 91, 92 to them."

Don't forget about his curveball, though, a tight slider that seems to be improving each time out.

"Usually it's just fast-change mostly," Slaught said of his lethal arsenal. "But since I really came up here to really try and work on that pitch, I've been throwing it a lot more and it's worked well so far."

And as batters have become more acclimated to their wood bats and improved their stroke, Slaught, along with the rest of the Oilers staff, has answered the call.

"The hitters are getting better, so we have to get better," Hennessey said. "When I told them that, each guy, I think, has really kind of put in a little extra."

Slaught is hoping to get drafted one of these years, saying his goal of making it to the pros is like that of any boy growing up around the sport. First he has to finish what he started in Alaska, and should things tilt the Oilers way, down in Wichita, Kan., at the National Baseball Congress World Series.

"He's going to be a key. ... We're going to need him down there. Hopefully he'll continue to roll," Hennessey said. "I'd hate to say it, but statistically, I can't say it's going to last forever. But if he keeps doing what he's doing, he's going to help us big time."

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