Struck gets the call to Triple-A
The Clackamas grad is just one step away from Major League Baseball
Nick Struck's pearly whites can be seen best with a grin that is lit from cheek-to-cheek. The youngster has a lot to smile about these days.
He's cracked a starting pitcher's role with the Chicago Cubs Triple-A professional baseball team - the Iowa Cubs. This just after a year and a half in the minor leagues.
Struck, a 5-11, 202-pound former Clackamas High star and 2008 Oregon 6A Player of the Year, is defying odds in a cutthroat life known as minor league baseball. And he's doing so at a rapid rate.
The former 39th round Major League Baseball draft pick of the Chicago Cubs is inching closer - just one step away - from reaching historic Wrigley Field in the Windy City.
Earlier this month the 21-year-old ace received the biggest news of his baseball career. He would take the bump for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs and square off with the Oklahoma City Redhawks, an affiliate of the Houston Astros.
This was just two months after spending short stints with the Daytona Cubs (Single-A, Daytona, Florida) and the Tennessee Smokies (Double-A, Kodak, Tennessee).
In his road debut with the Iowa Cubs July 6, Struck went 5 1/3 innings, striking out four, walking four, scattering six hits and allowing just two runs in a 3-2 loss.
A week and a half later, he was back at it. Again he squared off with the Redhawks. This time he struggled a bit, leaving the contest after 4 2/3 innings - giving up five earned runs (seven total) on nine hits, while striking out two and walking two.
Same result - He was credited with another loss in the 8-4 game, making him 0-2, with a 6.30 ERA.
Was Struck shocked by the mid-season news?
'I never would have thought it, being 21 and all,' Struck says of the chance to play Triple-A - just one affiliate away from the Chicago Cubs.
Traveling isn't anything new to Struck. As a matter of fact, it has become quite the norm in his young two-year minor league career. Each move brings him closer to a chance to shine in Chicago, a team that is in desperate need of starting pitchers.
'In the past two years I've been in more states than I've been to in my entire life,' Struck says.
This season, he started off with the Daytona Cubs, where he was excellent. He went 6-2 with a 3.42 ERA in ten quality starts, striking out 47 and walking 16 in 50 innings.
In early June he packed his bags and headed south to play with the Tennessee Smokies. He appeared in six games with the Smokies, where he went 1-1, with a 2.31 ERA. He only walked six batters in 35 innings and struck out 26.
That's when the organization decided to give him a shot at Triple-A.
Asked what the difference was from this year to last and his speedy way to the top, Struck says, 'Last year I had a lot of walks. This year, I've been pounding the zone.'
Struck admits that the heat has been awful so far, but he says it can also help with endurance on the hill.
'The heat is a good thing [for my arm],' he says. 'I would rather, be back home in Oregon. But I'm not complaining.'
It's said that somewhere from 5-10 percent of all players drafted actually get their feet wet at the big show. Struck believes he has the tools to be in that percentile. And with the way he's performing, the Chicago Cubs might agree.
'There are 30 Major League teams,' Struck says. 'Each team has like five teams below them. When I came into spring training there were 80 to 100 pitchers [competing for the same job].
'My goal was the same as last year. I wanted to make it back to Daytona and then get to Tennessee. It's been crazy.'
It sure has been crazy. But Struck still has a ways to go until the top.
Struck says that the main difference between pitching at the Single-A and Triple-A levels is that at the higher level you've got to be able to throw four different pitches for strikes, where you can get away with being able to hit your spots with just one or two pitches at Single-A.
'You can't just throw it by guys [at this level],' Struck says.
Struck says he's got the same four pitches he's always had in his arsenal - fastball, sinker, curve and changeup. But at this level, he has learned to throw with more control and with a chip on his shoulder, also known as confidence.
Struck's fastball sits anywhere from 90-92 miles per hour on the radar gun, and every once in a while he can reach back and hit 95.
But when he misses the zone, he admits tempers have flared in his journey. Not something he's proud of, but something that comes with his passion and hate-to-lose mentality.
'Main thing is to stay calm,' Struck said. 'But trust me. There are certain moments. Let's just say a few chairs have been broken [over the last couple of years].
'But it's not like high school, where you do it out in the open and everyone can see you. You do it in the tunnel, or in the clubhouse, or under the stadium.'
To Struck, the game he learned as a youngster hasn't changed. Nor does he plan on trying to change it.
'[No matter the level], it's all the same game,' he says. '[I'm] throwing the exact same pitches. Still 90 feet bases. Mound is still 60 feet, six-inches away from home plate. It's not as big of a jump as people think. It's more the little things.'
Special as it is, Struck remains humbled by the experience. He knows that as quickly as he got where he is, it could all be taken away just as quickly.
'I'm out there because I love the game,' Struck says.
He says one of the perks is meshing and meeting the past and current Cubs. Just last year when he was pitching for the Single-A Peoria Chiefs - his first professional team where he went 8-8 with a 3.22 ERA, he got the chance to meet future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux.
Maddux was at a game in honor of getting his jersey retired, after compiling 355 career wins in 23 years in the big leagues.
'I got his autograph,' Struck says. 'It's awesome! We get to meet these guys that we're fans of.'
In the end, Struck knows his goal. Like everyone else in the organization, it's to reach the top.
He says he would be lying if he said players aren't out there competing for each other's jobs. But he also said, it's important to understand that they're teammates first.
'We're all competing for the same ultimate goal. We're like a family. Of course we have our arguments. But we're all friends off and on the field. We work hard for one another. It's still a fight for everyone.'
Before inking with the Cubs, Struck spent one season at Mt. Hood Community College, where he dominated the competition. He finished that 2009 campaign with a perfect 10-0 record and 1.18 ERA, which helped plea a nice draft case. Plus he was eligible and willing.
He didn't commit to the Cubs right away. That summer he worked a mall job at Clackamas Town Center, while playing summer ball and enjoying friends and family.
He had plans of attending to the University of Hawaii, but ultimately decided the professional experience was best for him and that college could always come later.
'That's what I really look back on,' Struck says. 'I didn't go to Hawaii. It's been so much easier. I'm getting all the experience I need.'
Due to NCAA rules, if he had played for the University of Hawaii, Struck would have been forced to play at least two years there, or wait until he was 21.
He says he has no regrets in his decision. And trust Struck when he says it isn't about the money at this point in his career.
He wouldn't disclose how much money he's making. But he said he receives a check every two weeks, and that most people who 'work at the mall' make just as much money, or more.
But he's not complaining.
'Everyone thinks I make so much money,' he says. 'I tell them, 'You probably work at Hollister [retail store], or somewhere in the mall, and make more money than I do.''
Struck's main objective for the remainder of the season is to keep a roster spot with the Iowa Cubs through August - the same month they travel to Tacoma to take on the Rainiers. Since the Portland Beavers no longer exist, Tacoma is the closest site to home.
'I just want to be here in August,' he says. 'My parents, girlfriend's parents, girlfriend and friends are all planning on coming.'
Struck plans to stick around for a while and make the most of his abilities. You can see it in his pearly whites.